Sen. Rick Scott of Florida will challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his powerful post after the Republicans failed to win back the majority despite a favorable political environment.
Scott has little chance of succeeding – even though it’s the first real opponent McConnell has faced in his 15 years as the longest-serving GOP leader. Senate Republicans are expected to hold leadership elections Wednesday.
“I’m running for leader,” said Scott, a first-term senator and former governor. “I’m not satisfied with the status quo and so I think we ought to have an option.”
Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has had a long-simmering conflict with McConnell 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.
Asked about Scott’s attacks about his refusal to lay out a policy agenda, McConnell pushed back, and instead pointed to unnamed people in the party who are “engulfed in chaos, negativity and excessive attacks,” adding that “it frightened independent and moderate Republican voters.”
McConnell also again pointed to “candidate quality” as an issue in key races. Last week, Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC, suggested that the GOP re-evaluate the NRSC’s “hands-off approach to primaries” in an effort to elect candidates who will perform better in the general election. A NRSC spokesman responded, “Anyone who hates our candidates hates the Republican voters who chose them.”
But after getting burned in 2010 and 2012 primaries, McConnell has held a different view.
“We learned some lessons about this, and I think the lesson’s pretty clear,” said McConnell on Tuesday. “Senate races are different. Candidate quality, you recall I said in August, is important. In most of our states we met that test, in a few of them we did not.”
McConnell also reminded reporters that he had repeatedly called control of the Senate a “jump ball” ahead of the election. “I never predicted a red wave. We never saw that in any of our polling in the states that we were counting on to win,” he said. “There was no wave.”
Since Republicans failed to take back the Senate, allies of the two Republican leaders have sparred in public. And at a private, three-hour Senate GOP meeting on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell and Scott engaged in a tense discussion, according to multiple senators.
“Senator 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 Senator McConnell criticized Senator Scott’s management of the NRSC,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley told reporters.
Scott’s decision has further weakened the relationship between McConnell and himself. After the Tuesday meeting, Scott was disinvited to speak at the party’s weekly leadership press conference, according to Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis.
Scott revealed his desire to take on McConnell in a letter to colleagues. “Since my first week in the Senate, I have listened to complaints about how the Senate operates,” he wrote.
The Florida Republican then laid out a long list of gripes, including complaints over how the Senate crafts spending bills and deal with the Democrats.
“Some feel pressured to vote for bills that are either against their core beliefs and what they campaigned on or against the best interests of their state,” wrote Scott. “Some believe Republican donor funds are only used to help those who support leadership. Some believe we don’t take advantage of the opportunities presented to move the Republican message forward. And then there are some that are happy with the way things are going.”
McConnell insisted on Tuesday that he will be reelected as leader by his conference, but did not rule out delaying the leadership votes expected Wednesday.
“I think the outcome is pretty clear. I want to repeat again, I have the votes, I will be elected,” he said. “The only issue is whether we do it sooner or later, and I think we’ll probably have another discussion about that tomorrow.”
Former President Donald Trump has recently called up his allies in the Senate, suggesting that they blame McConnell for their lackluster midterm elections performance. But other Republicans have blamed Trump, candidates who embraced his 2020 elections and an inadequate response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump is expected to announce another presidential bid on Tuesday.
Sens. Hawley, Scott, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah have all pushed to delay Wednesday’s leadership vote, and try to figure out what went wrong.
“The reason we should delay the vote is to have a robust discussion in our conference about what leadership takes,” Cruz said. “And in particular, how we are going to stand up and fight against the disastrous policies of the Biden administration that have been hurting the American people for the last two years.”
“The election results from last week were deeply disappointing, given that 70% of Americans believe we are on the wrong path,” Cruz said. “Republicans should have seen a much bigger victory.”
But other GOP senators defended McConnell. In the closed-door GOP meeting, Maine Sen. Susan Collins questioned the management of the NRSC, criticizing its fundraising and expenditure decisions, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Scott was making a mistake.
“I hate to see him do it this way but it’s gotten way beyond me,” he said. “This is the way to resolve it.”
Senate Republicans for and against the delay have said the focus should be on the December 6 runoff election in Georgia, where Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock faces Republican nominee Herschel Walker. If Democrats win, they will expand their majority to 51 seats.
But so far, the runoff election has only deepened the division between the allies of Scott and McConnell.
Curt Anderson, a political adviser to Scott, tweeted on Tuesday morning, “McConnell’s superpac running zero ads attacking Warnock. Have they given up?”
Later, the Senate Leadership Fund announced it would spend $14.2 million to advertise in the race. Law tweeted at Anderson, “don’t worry little buddy – we’re used to covering for you,” referring to the NRSC’s smaller ad buy.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.