McConnell’s health puts focus on shadow race to replace him 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) health scare has Republican senators wondering whether the 81-year-old lawmaker will stay in the top job beyond the 2024 election and who might eventually replace him.  

McConnell plans to serve out his current term as leader and has given every indication that he intends to return as Senate GOP leader in the 119th Congress, which starts in January of 2025 — hopefully from his point of view with Republicans in control of the Senate majority.  

Yet Republican senators privately acknowledge that McConnell appears to be frailer since falling and suffering a concussion on March 9, which resulted in him being hospitalized for several days. The accident required rehabilitation at an inpatient facility and kept him away from the Capitol for more than a month.  

McConnell’s health came back into the spotlight Wednesday when he froze midsentence while delivering his opening remarks at the weekly Republican leadership press conference and had to step away from the podium and return to his office for a few minutes to recover.  

He later insisted that he was “fine” and declined to comment specifically about any health problems he may have, leaving GOP colleagues to speculate about how much longer he will serve as leader and who has the inside track to replace him. 

“I think the leadership race is well underway and this accelerates that,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the fallout from McConnell’s health episode before television cameras Wednesday.  

The lawmaker noted that Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) ran the Senate floor this month during the debate and votes on the annual defense authorization bill, with his staff working in close coordination with floor staff to get agreements on amendments and resolve objections.  

“Thune is running the floor, he’s running the [National Defense Authorization Act] negotiations,” the lawmaker said. 

Thune helped get 80 amendments adopted to the defense bill — through the manager's package, roll call votes and voice votes — helping GOP colleagues ring up accomplishments.

The senator said the shadow race to one day replace McConnell has boiled down to Thune, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who previously served as Senate GOP whip, and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.).  

“Cornyn has been very solicitous” about raising money for Republican senators who are up for reelection next year, showcasing his fundraising ability, which has been one of McConnell’s greatest strengths as leader, the senator said.  

Cornyn’s joint fundraising committee, the Cornyn Victory Committee, has raised $4.12 million for Senate GOP incumbents, future Senate GOP nominees and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) through the first six months of this year.  

Cornyn raised a total of $20 million for Senate Republican candidates in the 2022 election cycle, more than any other Republican senator with the exception of McConnell and then-NRSC Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.).  

“We hope to exceed that,” Cornyn said of what he plans to do for the 2024 election compared to the $20 million he raised for candidates in the 2022 election cycle. 

“Historically, I used to just raise money for the senatorial committee and let them spend it the way they saw fit, but I found that colleagues appreciate the [direct] help,” he said. “It saves them their wear and tear and a little time so they can hopefully maximize their fundraising elsewhere.” 

McConnell continues to be a major force in fundraising and any successor would have big shoes to fill in that area. 

Two outside groups aligned with McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, raised a combined $38 million during the first six months of 2023, setting a record for the first half of a nonelection year. 

Republican senators say they view Thune, who is 62, and Cornyn, 71, as the front-runners to become the next Senate GOP leader.  

“I think those will be the two that run for leader when that happens,” said a second Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the brewing succession battle.

The senator said “Cornyn’s been raising money for people for years” and has built a solid record as a major GOP fundraiser while pointing out it’s Thune’s “job” as whip to be managing the daily developments on the Senate floor.  

“I’m glad that he stepped up” during the floor consideration of the defense bill, the senator said, which came close to derailing because of an ongoing dispute over the Pentagon’s policy of paying for servicemembers to travel to obtain abortions.  

The senator said neither Thune nor Cornyn have said anything about running for McConnell’s job. But their ambitions to move up to the top job are an open secret.  

“The leadership is interesting times,” the senator remarked, noting that Thune and Cornyn “can’t discuss” their plans because it would be “rude” while McConnell is in the job.

Senators say Barrasso, 71, can’t be ruled out of the mix because he plays an important role as GOP conference chairman in pushing messaging strategy and could run as a more conservative alternative to Thune and Cornyn in a three-way race.

Barrasso, for example, voted against this year’s debt limit deal between Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Biden, which other members of the Senate GOP leadership supported. 

Former NRSC Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year, hasn’t ruled out another run for Senate Republican leader.  

He challenged McConnell in November in what became an intense and sometimes acrimonious debate over the future of the GOP conference before losing by a vote of 36-10. 

A Senate Republican aide said Cornyn has had to be more aggressive in angling for a future opening for Senate leader because he does not currently hold a position in the elected leadership. He had to step down as whip because of term limits in January of 2019.

“Thune and Cornyn are the two names that have been in the mix the most because they have both been whip, and everybody knows that Cornyn wants the [leader’s] job more than anything,” the aide said.  

Cornyn has held regular lunches and coffees with fellow Republican senators to help maintain his relationships with colleagues.  

He has kept ties with the conservative wing of the GOP conference by regularly attending Monday evening meetings of the Senate Republican Steering Committee. 

Thune and Cornyn have both publicly expressed interest in becoming leader in the future but have also made clear that the job is McConnell’s for as long as he wants it.  

Thune earlier this year waved off a question about running for Senate Republican leader as putting “the cart before the horse.”  

He stepped in to handle some of McConnell’s responsibilities, such as leading the weekly leadership press conference, while McConnell underwent rehabilitation after his fall.

Likewise, Cornyn this week insisted to reporters that he isn’t actively running to become the next leader. 

“There’s no vacancies,” he said. “And those [leadership] elections won’t be until November 2024. So I guess the short answer is there’s nothing to prepare for.”  

Barrasso has only said he would like to continue serving the Senate GOP conference in whatever way is most helpful to his colleagues.  

The Wyoming doctor was in the spotlight himself Wednesday because he came to McConnell’s aid after he froze in the middle of delivering his opening remarks at the press conference.  

Barrasso acknowledged to reporters immediately afterward that he was “concerned” about McConnell’s health since his accident in March but hastened to emphasize “he’s made a remarkable recovery” and is “doing a great job leading our conference.” 

Some Republican senators downplayed the incident, which McConnell’s office attributed to the leader feeling “lightheaded,” as a blip that doesn’t affect his ability to lead the conference.  

“Naturally, anytime it happens I think you’re concerned, but in terms of his capabilities and ability to lead, no, I’m not worried about his ability to lead,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).  

A third Republican senator who requested anonymity, however, said that some GOP senators feel they aren’t getting the full story about McConnell’s health, which is in turn fueling speculation about how much longer he will remain leader. 

“No one says what’s wrong with him,” the senator said. “I think there ought to be more transparency here.”  

Al Weaver contributed.  

--Updated at 8:00 a.m.

Scary moment for McConnell raises questions for GOP

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is helped by Senators and staff after McConnell unexpectedly pauses while speaking to reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Greg Nash)

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) froze in front of television cameras for about 20 seconds Wednesday as he battled a bout of lightheadedness that forced him to walk away briefly from a press conference.

The scary moment, which prompted members of his leadership team to suggest that he take a rest, raises new questions about the 81-year-old Republican leader’s future.  

“Are you good, Mitch?” asked Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Joni Ernst (Iowa), putting her hand on the back of his arm.  

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), who is a doctor, ushered McConnell away from the podium after the leader was unable to get more than a couple of sentences into his opening statement.  

“Let’s go back to your office,” Barrasso suggested. “Do you want to say anything else to the press? Let’s go back.”  

Barrasso later revealed that he walked “down the hall” with McConnell toward his office after they both walked away from the podium and that the leader didn’t say anything to him to indicate distress.  

An aide to McConnell later said, “He felt lightheaded and stepped away for a moment.” The aide pointed out that McConnell “was sharp” in answering reporters’ questions after he returned to the event.  

McConnell’s term runs through the end of 2026, and he previously said that he expects to stay on as leader.  

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) told reporters after the troubling moment in front of the cameras that McConnell should stay in his leadership role.  

“And hopefully he gets a good rest over the [August] break,” she said. 

Top stories from The Hill

McConnell has helped recruit top-flight Republican candidates in West Virginia and Montana to maximize the chances of reclaiming his old title of Senate majority leader in January 2025.  

And two outside fundraising groups aligned with McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, this week reported record-breaking fundraising hauls over the first six months of a nonelection year.  

The groups raised a combined $38 million, with the Senate Leadership Fund collecting $10.1 million and One Nation bringing in $28.2 million. 

But Senate Republican colleagues say McConnell seems to be still suffering the effects of a nasty spill he took in early March, which sent him to the hospital with a concussion and led to weeks of rehabilitation.  

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One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss McConnell’s health observed that the GOP leader has been more reticent at Republican lunch meetings. The lawmaker speculated that McConnell may be having troubling hearing the conversations at the lunch, just as he sometimes has trouble hearing reporters’ questions at press conferences. 

A second Republican senator said McConnell does not appear fully recovered from his fall. 

“I love Mitch McConnell, he is one of the most strategic political thinkers that we have. I have such admiration and respect for him but I do fear that — you can call it low energy — he is not himself,” the lawmaker said. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is the oldest member of the Senate GOP conference at age 89, said he planned to call McConnell’s office to check up on his health.  

“If I want to know what went wrong, yes,” he said.  

FILE - Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, testifies during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Washington. A U.S. Senate committee has accused the embattled Swiss bank Credit Suisse of limiting the scope of an internal probe into Nazi clients and Nazi-linked accounts. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

McConnell waved aside questions about his health when he returned to the podium Wednesday afternoon. 

Asked at Wednesday’s press conference why he was unable to complete his statement and whether it was related to the concussion, McConnell responded: “No, I’m fine.”  

“You’re fine, you’re fully able to do your job?” the reporter pressed. 

“Yeah,” McConnell answered.  

McConnell returned to the press conference in time to take the first question from reporters, as he usually does after the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch.  

He made a point of staying at the podium longer than usual to answer questions and appeared calm and confident while providing detailed answers.  

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Greg Nash)

When a reporter asked Wednesday if he had “anybody in mind” to replace him when he’s “no longer” the Republican leader, McConnell smiled and walked back to his office while members of his leadership team laughed it off.  

Republican senators and aides predict that if McConnell steps down from his leadership job, there would be a three-way race among Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), Barrasso and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the former Senate GOP whip and a current adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, to replace him.  

Thune and Cornyn, who have both expressed interest in becoming the Senate GOP leader sometime in the future, say the job belongs to McConnell as long as he wants it.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who challenged McConnell unsuccessfully in November, hasn’t ruled out making another run for Senate Republican leader.

McConnell defeated Scott 37-10 in an acrimonious race in which both candidates traded blame for the disappointing results of the 2022 midterm election. 

Barrasso said after the press conference that he was “concerned” about McConnell’s health but pointed out that he led the lunch meeting earlier in the day and appeared in good shape while answering questions from the press.  

“I was concerned since … he was injured a number of months ago, and I continue to be concerned,” he told a crowd of reporters who pressed him for details about McConnell’s condition.

“I was concerned when he fell and hit his head a number of months ago and was hospitalized, and I think he’s made a remarkable recovery. He’s doing a great job leading our conference and was able to answer every question that the press asked today,” he said.  

Barrasso said McConnell didn’t show any signs of impairment at the conference lunch meeting. 

“He spoke at lunch, carried on, led the discussion. Everything was fine,” he said.  

Al Weaver contributed.

Trump Pledges That He Will Campaign Against Lisa Murkowski In 2022

Former President Donald Trump spoke out on Saturday to vow that he will campaign against Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) when she is up for re-election in 2022.

Trump Pledges To Campaign Against Murkowski

“I will not be endorsing, under any circumstances, the failed candidate from the great State of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski,” Trump said in a statement obtained by Politico.

“She represents her state badly and her country even worse,” he added. “I do not know where other people will be next year, but I know where I will be — in Alaska campaigning against a disloyal and very bad Senator.”

“Her vote to advance radical left Democrat Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior is yet another example of Murkowski not standing up for Alaska,” Trump continued, referring to the fact that Murkowski voted to confirm Joe Biden’s Interior Secretary nominee.

Murkowski was one of the seven Republican senators who voted to impeach Trump in his second impeachment trial last month.

Related: Manchin and Murkowski Solid for President in Senate Impeachment Vote

John Barrasso Stands By Murkowski 

After Trump pledged to campaign against Murkowski, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) spoke out to support her, according to Newsweek.

“In terms of Alaska, I want to always make sure we nominate somebody who can win in November,” Barrasso said.

“Lisa Murkowski knows Alaska better than anybody. And she’s an incredible fighter for American energy,” he added. “She hasn’t made an announcement of if she’s even going to run again. If she does, I’m going to support her.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also said that he will “absolutely” support Murkowski, despite what Trump had to say.

Related: Romney Says He’s ‘Very Likely’ to Join Democrats on Call For New Impeachment Witnesses

Murkowski Turns On Trump

Murkowski was quick to turn on Trump after the Capitol riots back in January.

“On the day of the riots, President Trump’s words incited violence, which led to the injury and deaths of Americans — including a Capitol Police officer — the desecration of the Capitol, and briefly interfered with the government’s ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power,” Murkowski said at the time.

“Such unlawful actions cannot go without consequence and the House has responded swiftly, and I believe, appropriately, with impeachment,” she added. 

This piece was written by James Samson on March 7, 2021. It originally appeared in LifeZette and is used by permission.

Read more at LifeZette:
GOP Sen. Toomey Says Trump Can’t Be The GOP Nominee In 2024 Because He Cost Republicans Senate And White House
Carville Outrageously Claims Republicans Think God Wants ‘Wealthy White People To Be First In Line To Get The Vaccine’
GOP Sen. Kennedy Blasts Biden’s COVID Bill – Says Only Way To Improve It ‘Is With A Shredder

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