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. 

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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.