February 21, 2024

Falls and a Freeze-Up: Mitch McConnell’s Health Scares Prompt Succession Chatter

“Maybe he’s slowed down a half step over the last couple years, but I don’t see any gross changes,” Senator Marshall told Vanity Fair. McConnell “just had a bad day” at the lectern on Wednesday, said Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, adding, “I’ve had a lot of bad days myself,” with a laugh.

Tuberville also noted, generally, “We all gotta know when enough’s enough…. He’s fine. He’ll make his own decision on that.”

Mitch McConnell’s staff was quick to swat down any chatter about the leader’s ability to serve. “Leader McConnell appreciates the continued support of his colleagues, and plans to serve his full term in the job they overwhelmingly elected him to do,” his office put out in a statement to the press.

But those in his conference are already thinking about who is next. “If and when the time comes, I’m interested,” says Thune, who currently serves as the Republican whip and led the conference when McConnell was absent for around five weeks after his fall in March. Thune was the first to step up to deliver remarks when McConnell was briefly taken away from the lectern last week.

It’s no secret who is in the running for McConnell’s successorship. “I think people who would be interested in his position are people who are in leadership today,” said Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, name-dropping Thune, Barrasso, and Ernst. Texas Republican John Cornyn, who served as GOP whip from 2013 to 2019 and as a loyal McConnell ally, is also in the mix.

“The three Johns,” though, dominate the chatter of any post-McConnell order more than the two women on the leadership team—Ernst and conference vice chairman Shelley Moore Capito—or any possibility of a wild card in the conference, assumptions that bristle some Senate Republicans. “Wouldn’t it be great if it were a woman?” mused a senior GOP senator on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think it’ll happen, but that would really be something if it were a woman,” the senator continued, a preference broadly echoed by at least two other women in the conference. “It’s all about who is interested in throwing their ideas into the mix and taking votes,” Senator Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, told Politico.

Last November, 10 Senate Republicans presented the first challenge to McConnell’s grip as Senate GOP leader by voting for Rick Scott of Florida who, along with Mike Lee of Utah, were reportedly stripped of their preferred committee assignments when McConnell eventually prevailed by a vote of 37 to 10. No one had ever voted against McConnell in leadership elections before. But the internal mutiny was more about politics than a belief McConnell was no longer fit to serve.

After failing to retake the Senate majority in last year’s midterm election, some Republican senators had seen enough. McConnell, who has carefully navigated Donald Trump’s insurgency in his own party, suddenly had challengers. “My criticisms following the last election loss are well known,” said Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of the 10 Senate Republicans who voted for Scott. “I think we need a different approach…but I don’t want that to be taken as a dig against his health, at all.” For now—at least publicly—most of McConnell’s possible successors demure at the idea. “I’m happy to wait,” Cornyn said when asked if the conference should be making plans for when McConnell is no longer leader. “I don’t know how much longer he will want to serve, but I support him as long as he wants the job.”

“McConnell is our leader,” laughed Barrasso, the senior senator from Wyoming, a seat he has held since 2007, when asked about the GOP leader’s eventual secession.

When I asked McConnell directly if he had anyone in mind to replace him some day, he laughed out loud. It was the last question during the now infamous Wednesday presser where McConnell froze live on air.

“I’m fine,” he said—a line he repeated until the Senate left Capitol Hill until September for a five-week recess. 

The American political memory is short, but McConnell’s not up for reelection until 2026—plenty of time for him to become another Senate prizefighter who played the long game, maybe too long.

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