Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell won a secret-ballot leadership election after days of finger-pointing over the Republican midterm losses, putting him on pace to become the longest-serving Senate party leader in US history.
McConnell defeated Florida Sen. Rick Scott, his first challenger in his 15 years atop his conference.
McConnell won the leadership vote 37-10-1 and said at a news conference that he was “pretty proud” of the result.
“I don’t own this job. Anybody who wants to run for it can feel free to do so,” McConnell said. “I’m not in any way offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in opposition.”
Asked whether the challenge to his leadership made him more or less likely he’ll step aside after next year, when he will beat the record of longest-serving Senate party leader, McConnell said, “Look, I’m not going anywhere.”
Senate Republican Conference chairman Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming formally announced the slate of GOP leadership positions following the elections, including that Republican Sen. John Thune would continue as whip. Montana Sen. Steve Daines will replace Scott as the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will become the next policy chair, replacing Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who’s retiring at the end of his term. West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito will become the GOP conference’s vice chairwoman.
The fight for Senate GOP leader underscored the discontent brewing among Republican senators, who failed to win back the majority despite a favorable national political environment.
“I voted for change,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who voted for Scott. “I accept the results of the conference, and I hope we can be better.”
The Florida Republican said in a statement that he would press on.
“Although the results of today’s elections weren’t what we hoped for, this is far from the end of our fight to Make Washington Work,” Scott said.
Several Republican senators emerged from the meeting saying the open dialogue was cathartic.
“That was the best conversation we’ve had as a Senate group since I’ve been here,” said Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun, who supported Scott over McConnell. “It was interactive. It fleshed out what we’re going to be for as a caucus.”
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, said he understands some of the frustrations that members feel about the Senate process, which he said is not as inclusive as it used to be.
“I think there is an appetite for better communication and more collaboration and more input,” Cornyn said. “People don’t get elected to the United States Senate to be shutout of the discussion and that’s essentially what’s happened when the bills are written in the leader’s conference.
Braun and Cornyn were tasked with counting the secret ballots. Cornyn quipped they had “to make sure there wasn’t any mischief.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said the long meeting had “lower intensity” than another on Tuesday, joking it was someone’s strategy to make the room on Wednesday “freezing cold.”
After the tense, hours-long meeting on Tuesday – the first in-person get together for Republican members since their disappointing midterm elections – Scott told reporters that he planned to challenge McConnell for the top job.
“I’m running for leader,” the Florida Republican told reporters. “I’m not satisfied with the status quo and so I think we ought to have an option.”
Throughout this year, Scott and McConnell have had a long-simmering conflict over messaging, outlook and how to spend resources this election cycle. The two have disagreed over the quality of their candidates, whether to engage in GOP primaries, whether to put forward an agenda or keep the focus on President Joe Biden, and where to compete.
After losing the leadership election on Wednesday, Scott said that he would continue to advance his plan to “rescue America,” an agenda that was criticized by McConnell and President Joe Biden, who said it would take aim at Social Security and Medicare.
“I will never stop fighting to finally take action to protect Social Security and Medicare and preserve the promise of these programs for our children and grandchildren,” said Scott in his statement. “I never thought for a moment that this fight would be easy, but I’m optimistic that, together, Republicans can rescue America with the principles that unite us against the dangerous path Democrats have set it on.”
Wednesday’s vote comes after Scott, as well as a handful of conservative senators, called for a delay in the leadership elections until after the Georgia runoff, underscoring Senate Republicans’ frustration with the outcome of the 2022 elections. That effort to push back the vote failed during the closed-door meeting, though 16 GOP senators voted to delay the GOP leadership elections, according to a source familiar.
And while Scott had little chance of succeeding in his bid to be leader, his declaration was seen as a protest vote.
Asked by CNN why McConnell won, Hawley, who voted for Scott, turned sarcastic.
“Because the conference doesn’t want to change course,” Hawley responded. “They want to do what we’re doing. It’s working so well.”
During the closed-door meeting with his Republican colleagues on Tuesday, Scott engaged in a tense back-and-forth with McConnell.
“Sen. Scott disagrees with the approach that Mitch has taken in this election and for the last couple of years, and he made that clear and Sen. McConnell criticized Sen. Scott’s management of the NRSC,” Hawley told reporters about the exchange.
Meanwhile, Cornyn said after emerging from the closed door meeting on Tuesday he was eager to get past the divisions with his Republican colleagues and hold the leadership elections.
He said he believed Republicans’ focus should be on helping Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker in his December 6 runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
“I think the best thing we can do is get this behind us,” Cornyn told CNN. “Because you guys will keep writing about it for the next three weeks and it will distract from the Georgia runoff, which I think should be our undivided focus.”
For Democrats, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that their caucus leadership elections will be December 8, according to a source familiar at the Senate Democrats’ lunch on Wednesday.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.