WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was re-elected as Republican leader on Wednesday, defeating a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida that reflects growing angst within the party after it underperformed in the midterm elections.
The secret-ballot victory was confirmed by McConnell spokesman David Popp, with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., telling reporters that 37 Republicans voted for McConnell while 10 supported Scott and one senator voted “present.” The vote came after the conference rejected a motion by McConnell’s dissenters to delay the leadership election, which 16 Republicans voted for, according to two sources.
The McConnell-Scott battle represents a larger clash over the direction and governing vision of the party, with the two men offering conflicting theories on why the GOP failed to win Senate seats in the midterms, with Democrats clinching the majority. It is the most serious challenge McConnell has faced for his position after leading the Republican caucus for 15 years.
“I believe it’s time for the Senate Republican Conference to be far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past,” Scott, who chaired the GOP Senate campaign arm during the 2022 cycle, said in a letter asking for members’ votes Tuesday. “We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against. I do not believe we can simply continue to say the Democrats are radical, which they are. Republican voters expect and deserve to know our plan to promote and advance conservative values.”
McConnell offered a different prognosis of the Republican losses in his Tuesday press conference, attributing them to poor candidates and chaotic behavior within the party that he said “frightened” independents and moderate voters.
“I don’t own this job,” McConnell said Wednesday after the vote. “Anybody who wants to run for it can feel free to do so. So I’m not in any way offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in opposition,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10.”
McConnell is now on track to become the longest-serving Senate caucus leader in history. Scott chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2022 cycle, which ended in disappointment after the party failed to gain the one seat it needed to capture control of the chamber.
Before Wednesday’s leadership vote, Braun said he’d back Scott because he believes it is time for a change.
“I’m going to vote for something that’s going to change the current dynamic that we’re in,” Braun said. “That option is represented by Rick Scott currently.”
Scott’s challenge has rankled some in the Republican caucus, who attribute the 2022 defeats to his handling of the NRSC.
“Rick Scott must really love to lose,” griped one Senate GOP aide.
Scott and McConnell have long feuded over strategy and vision for the Republican caucus. McConnell has long been the subject of ire from former President Donald Trump, who has campaigned aggressively to oust him as leader.
Tensions ran high on Wednesday as numerous Republicans had no interest in getting in the middle of the clash. Among them was Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who told reporters asking about the leadership contest, “No habla ingles.”
During a lengthy closed-door GOP meeting Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned management of the NRSC’s finances.
“I raised some questions on the amount of money that had been raised and allocated in this cycle versus other cycles and — and just question the differences,” she said.
Scott released a statement Wednesday responding to calls for an audit of the NRSC’s money practices, saying that the committee “has done an annual independent audit every year since at least 2014” and that he learned of “hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized and improper bonuses” sent to staff after the Republicans lost the majority in 2020.
“When that’s your starting point, you work really hard to make sure there are transparent processes and we are more than happy to sit down with any member of the caucus to walk them through our spending,” Scott said.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who was elected the new NRSC chair Wednesday, said he hopes for a “strong, lasting majority for the Republicans in 2024.”
Ryan Nobles and Kate Santaliz contributed.