McConnell’s absence leaves colleagues wondering about GOP’s future

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) extended absence from the Senate has stirred speculation among Republican senators over how much longer the 81-year-old senator will lead the Senate GOP conference.

There’s no word yet on McConnell’s date of return, but some lawmakers expect he may not come back to the Senate until mid-April, after the two-week Easter and Passover recess.  

“I’ve heard senators say, half-jokingly, I wonder if the people who want to be leader are starting to count votes,” one Republican senator said. “People are thinking this is probably good reminder that he’s not going to be leader in 10 years.” 

“It’s kind of a state of limbo. Nobody really knows what the situation is and nobody knows how long he’ll be gone,” the lawmaker added. “A couple of folks have said, ‘Who’s in charge right now.’” 

Another GOP senator privately expressed concern to The Hill last week about the future of the Senate Republican Conference after McConnell retires.  

“I think, who would be our next leader and what kind of leader would that person be?” the senator said. “Yeah, I do worry about that.” 

The Republican Party is changing and some GOP lawmakers fear that could accelerate if former President Trump wins the party’s presidential nomination or general election in 2024. Speculation about Trump is rising again this week as the former president himself predicts an indictment over a hush-money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels.

Before his injury, McConnell was trying to put his stamp on the future makeup of the Senate GOP conference by playing a significant role in next year’s Senate primaries, helping candidates who have an eye toward governing and the best chance of winning in November.  

He told Fox News last month that in West Virginia, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania “we’re focusing on now to try to get the very most electable candidate nominated.”  

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said McConnell’s “got a better instinct for the electorate than virtually anybody in the Senate.”  

“I think he’s representing good conservative value and at the same understanding the political boundaries we need in to resonate at a national level and in purple states and even blue states,” he said, predicting that McConnell will remain as leader through his current Senate term, which ends after 2026.  

“I have full confidence in him, I’m going to support him,” he said.  

Some Republican senators think that McConnell’s successor would lead in the same way he has by promoting traditional Republican values, cutting deals with Democrats when necessary and promoting unity across the Senate Republican Conference. 

GOP senators say they expect either Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) or Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to someday replace McConnell as leader and predict that either man would inspire a lot of confidence. 

Thune is the second-ranking Senate Republican leader, but he will step down from that job at the end of 2024 because of Republican conference term limits.  

Thune built strong relationships with the business community during his time as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and has an impressive track record of moving legislation, getting more than 100 bills signed into law. He was one of the “core four” Republican senators who put together the landmark 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.   

He actively raised money for Senate colleagues and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and has more than $16.5 million in his campaign account. 

Thune is open to the possibility of running for leader someday, but says any talk about him succeeding McConnell is putting “the cart before the horse.” 

“If and when the time comes, I’m always interested in what I can do to help our team succeed but certainly right now just trying to get from one day to the next,” he said. 

Cornyn has made it clear that he’s also interested in serving as leader whenever McConnell decides to retire.   

Cornyn’s allies tout him as the biggest Senate Republican fundraiser after McConnell and the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. 

He raised $11 million in hard dollars through the Cornyn Victory Committee to aid Republican campaigns directly and he raised another $9 million for the NRSC and Senate GOP incumbents and candidates, hosting and attending events in Texas, Washington and around the country.  

He also played a central role in negotiating two of the biggest bipartisan accomplishments of 2022: gun violence legislation to respond to the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act.  

McConnell asked Cornyn to take the lead on the difficult gun violence issue because he wanted to get a result that wouldn’t create a rift between GOP senators and gun rights advocates.  

Thune stood in for McConnell last week by presiding over the Monday afternoon Senate Republican leadership meeting and taking the lead in speaking to reporters at the Tuesday leadership press conference.  

But McConnell has continued to play a role. His staff worked closely with Thune’s staff to set the agenda for the Monday leadership meeting, which was still held in his Capitol office.  

Asked how it felt to be in charge of the GOP conference while McConnell is away, Thune laughed and answered: “I don’t think of it as being in charge, I think we’re all trying to pitch in and help the team however we can.” 

“We’re working closely with the leader’s team to make sure all the bases get covered,” he said.

McConnell sent a message to colleagues Thursday when they gathered for a lunch hosted by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to say he was doing well and sorry to miss out on the delicious Maine lobster rolls prepared by a Park City restaurant.    

“I don’t anticipate there to be an uncertainty whatsoever. His return is absolute,” said Josh Holmes, a senior political adviser to McConnell, who added that the GOP leader is showing good progress at a rehab facility.  

“Based on everything we’ve seen over the last week any suspicion otherwise will be voided almost immediately when he gets back,” he added, knocking down speculation that McConnell’s condition is worse than has been publicly reported.   

McConnell has a solid grip on the Senate Republican leader’s job, which he showed in November by easily defeating Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in a leadership race by a vote of 37-10. 

He is biggest fundraiser for Senate Republican candidates and helped raise $290 million for the 2022 midterm through an affiliated super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund. 

But McConnell has also bitterly feuded with Trump. In addition, his commitment to free trade, a strong national defense and political pragmatism is sometimes a friction point with Republicans who embrace Trump’s “America First” populism.  

McConnell’s break with Trump opened the door for Scott to challenge him, something that Trump publicly encouraged.  

Several Republicans who voted for Scott said McConnell has led the GOP conference for long enough — more than 16 years. The Kentucky senator in January surpassed late-Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) as the longest-serving Senate leader in history. 

“I voted for change,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill in November. “Nothing against Mitch, I just think we need change.”

Some Republicans, however, think McConnell has performed a major service for the Senate GOP conference by absorbing so much of Trump’s wrath and taking the heat of other senators who have their own complaints and disagreements with the former president.  

They say he also soaks up criticism from the media and critics on the left that would otherwise fall on other GOP senators.  

“One thing about McConnell’s total value is that he’ll just take it from anybody for anybody,” said a third Republican senator who requested anonymity to talk about the future of the Senate GOP leadership.  

The senator said Thune and Cornyn are the clear front-runners to become the next leader but still have to prove they can fill McConnell’s shoes as a political heat shield for other Republican senators. 

“I think both of them are like that but I don’t know. I think they’d have to convince some people that they are,” the senator said. 

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