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McConnell wins leadership race but GOP infighting continues

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. arrives at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. arrives at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday.

Updated November 16, 2022 at 2:21 PM ET

Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell — already the longest serving GOP leader in Senate history — will extend that run for at least another two years after winning against a longshot challenge by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott to remove him from power.

Thirty seven senators voted for McConnell. Scott picked up 10 votes and one senator voted present in a secret-ballot election, according to Indiana Sen. Mike Braun who was one of the senators who counted the final votes.

"I don't own this job, anyone that wants to run for it can feel free to do so," McConnell said, adding that he is proud of his vote count. Speaking to reporters in the U.S. Capitol following his win, he said he doesn't plan to go anywhere.

Scott formally launched his bid a day earlier and placed the electoral blame of not gaining enough seats to control the Senate on McConnell even though Scott ran the GOP's 2022 Senate campaign operation. There has been bad blood between the two senators for some time as they tussled throughout the campaign cycle over candidate recruitment in key races and party messaging.

"If you're going to access blame for election losses, I don't know how you trade in the leader for the chairman of [the National Republican Senatorial Committee]," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., "That's just basic to me."

The defections signal that McConnell enters the next Congress with a weaker grip on power as newer, younger and more ambitious senators grow increasingly agitated at their party leadership following a disappointing midterm election for the GOP.

"Nobody, not Republicans, not independents, not Democrats in my state are happy with the leadership in Washington. I'm not either. So I'm on their side, not on the side of these guys," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a vocal McConnell critic.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined a group of senators who tried and failed to delay the leadership election until after the Dec. 6 Georgia Senate run-off election.

"Republicans should have seen a much bigger victory. We should have seen a significant majority in the Senate and we should have seen a very large majority in the House. We didn't get those results," Cruz said.

Scott, Hawley and Cruz are all senators with future presidential ambitions. However, some rank-and-file senators also joined them in protest.

"I don't think we're generating the results politically or governmentally," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who voted for Scott. "We don't have an agenda. We don't have a business plan. That doesn't work anywhere else."

Specifically, Braun said many GOP senators want to feel like they are playing a larger role in committees and in shaping legislation. "The way this place works, generally, change doesn't come easily or quickly."

Following the vote, Braun painted a brighter picture of the discussions.

"That was the best conversation we have had as a Senate group since I have been here," he said. "Because it was interactive and flushed out what we are going to be for as a caucus and all I can tell you is for the four years I have been here, that (was) the best four hours."

One top McConnell ally, Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, said senators' frustrations were the reality of closely divided government and a "stalemate" election.

"These next two years are going to be very difficult to pass legislation that is not consensus," he said. "The most important thing we can do is get these differences behind us."

McConnell, while an effective tactical leader in the Senate, has never been particularly popular with the GOP party base, nor its de facto leader former President Donald Trump, whose decision to announce a third presidential run late Tuesday hung over the leadership elections. Trump enjoys more widespread support among GOP House lawmakers than he does in the Senate.

"I think we can do better with a new leader in our party who's younger, has a bright vision for the future. and can get our country back on track," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. "President Trump has lost three in a row, and if we want to start winning we need a new leader."

Power struggles are also playing out in the House. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., privately secured his party's nomination on Tuesday to serve as speaker in the next Congress once the party takes the majority. He won the nomination 188-31 against Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona in a closed door meeting. McCarthy will need to win over most of those 31 defectors before the public Jan. 3 vote for speaker takes place on the floor because it requires a majority of the whole House, typically 218 votes if all 435 lawmakers are present and voting.

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Katherine Swartz
Katherine Swartz is the Washington Desk and NPR Politics Podcast intern.