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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 1: Mitch McConnell Gives Up the Power He Can No Longer Command

Congress is narrowly avoiding a government shutdown for the moment, but the bigger news this week is elsewhere, as I explained at New York:

Not even Mitch McConnell is eternal. He has decided to avoid further concerns over his fragile health and his fraught relationship with party boss Donald Trump by stepping down as Republican Senate leader in November. McConnell announced the news in a Wednesday-afternoon speech on the Senate floor.

McConnell has been in that position since 2006, the longest tenure of any Senate leader from either party. But unlike his former House counterpart Kevin McCarthy, McConnell isn’t quitting his job altogether the moment he’s no longer top dog. As he told the Senate, he plans to finish his current term, which runs until the end of 2026, “albeit from a different seat in the chamber.”

The timing makes sense. This hasn’t been a very enjoyable congressional session for McConnell, who cherishes his reputation as a master deal-maker like his Kentucky idol, Henry Clay. His extended effort to put together a bipartisan and bicameral foreign-aid and border-security package failed almost entirely (though it’s possible some of its component parts can yet be resuscitated). He is in the process of negotiating a humiliating endorsement of Trump, whom he denounced in no uncertain terms for the then-president’s misconduct of January 6. In return, the former president has let it be known he’s not sure he could work with McConnell if both are in power in 2025. A coup to take down the man Trump has often called an “old broken-down crow” could have been in the offing just down the road, particularly if the 82-year-old senator’s recent health problems were to recur.

You would have to assume McConnell will have some influence over the identity of his successor. The most likely aspirants for the job are the senators known as the “three Johns”: John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota, and John Barrasso of Wyoming. Cornyn — who on Thursday confirmed he is already campaigning for the job — was McConnell’s whip from 2012 to 2018, until he was term-limited out of that position and replaced by Thune, who has also announced he is considering a campaign to become leader. Barrasso is currently the third-ranking Senate Republican as chairman of the party conference. Cornyn is 72, Barrasso is 71, and Thune is a relatively youthful 63. All of these men have been loyal McConnell sidekicks while maintaining better relations with the party’s MAGA wing than has their chief. All three of the Johns have already endorsed Trump’s presidential candidacy, though Barrasso is viewed as closer to the 45th president.

It’s possible that MAGA senators could offer their own candidate as leader. Rick Scott unsuccessfully challenged McConnell in November 2022 after advocating an extremist policy agenda that annoyed other Republicans significantly. Scott could try again, but he’s likely preoccupied with securing his own reelection this fall. Trump could intervene to promote a loyalist, but even in this MAGA era of the GOP, senators have a puffed-up self-regard that limits too much open subservience to others. By the time Republicans finally choose a McConnell successor, they’ll know whether they have a majority in the chamber, and barring another contested presidential election, they’ll also know whether their party enjoys a governing trifecta that would enormously expand their power.

Mitch McConnell was a powermonger of the highest order. But whatever happens in November, his own powers had become too faint to satisfy himself or his fellow Republicans.

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