Sep 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

McConnell's renegades

Illustration of several versions of the elephant from the Republican Party logo stampeding and kicking up dust.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Two of the highest-profile Republicans in the Senate are publicly defying Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on high-stakes issues vital to the GOP's chances of retaking the majority next year.

The big picture: In interviews with Axios, GOP senators and party strategists declined to blame McConnell for the antics of Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). They see the "freelancing" — as one source close to the leader described it — as a sign of the Senate as an institution breaking down under modern incentive structures.

What's happening: Scott, the influential chair of Senate Republicans' campaign arm, irked McConnell this spring by independently releasing a 12-point plan for how the GOP would govern in the majority — undercutting the leader's midterm strategy of keeping the focus on Democratic failures.

  • Scott's "Rescue America" proposal contained several controversial provisions on Social Security and taxes that Democrats instantly seized on for attack ads — including President Biden, who continued to troll Scott over the plan as recently as Tuesday.
  • Over the past month, Scott and McConnell have also feuded over the politics, policy and fundraising strategy for reclaiming the Senate.
  • McConnell recently acknowledged that "candidate quality" could cost Republicans the majority — a subtle dig at Scott, who is responsible for recruiting as chair of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Graham, meanwhile, took GOP leadership by surprise Tuesday by releasing a bill that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks — drawing new attention to a debate that has energized Democrats and closed the polling gap in key races.

  • The headline-grabbing release came the same day inflation data showed consumer prices remained stubbornly high in August, causing the stock market to plummet.
  • Graham admitted to Axios that he did not get permission from McConnell to release the proposal. McConnell, like many GOP senators, has said the abortion question should be left to the states.

Between the lines: New awareness of the importance of personal branding, the 24/7 cable news cycle, and internet fundraising has incentivized rogue operators — many of whom have ambitions beyond the Senate.

  • The insubordination is a product of a new era in politics and underscores how much harder it is to ensure party unity in today's Congress.
  • "Rick Scott’s plan and Graham’s announcement yesterday have sent candidates running for cover and distancing themselves from these proposals," a Senate GOP leadership aide told Axios. "Exactly the opposite of what we want right now."

What they're saying: "This is an institutional problem. A senator is getting elected in their own states and they are not beholden to anybody," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Axios.

  • "The Senate's made up of 99 people who want to be president — and me," Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. "People look for moments and opportunities to differentiate themselves. ... Republicans, we don't do the groupthink thing."
  • "We have 50 Republican senators ... they do this for their own motives," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who's served in the Senate since 1981, told Axios. Grassley reflected on how, in the past, "the personality of the entire Senate was to be less partisan, more respectful of each other."

Retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who has served since 1987, called former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) — famous for holding his conference in line — a "great leader."

  • But "you can't blame" McConnell, Shelby cautioned. "We've always had individuals and individual outcomes."
  • "I just think in today's multimedia/24-hour cycle world, it's just different," Cramer added. "It's hard to know whether a guy like Bob Dole could have been able to keep everyone in line today."

What to watch: If Trump-backed "MAGA" nominees are successful in November, McConnell will have even more free agents in his conference who are likely to buck his leadership.

  • "You got a lot of people who are running this year who are very independent-minded," Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told Axios. "If we have more members, and hopefully we do, we'll have more people who do their own thing."

The other side: "Senator Scott fights every day to do what he thinks is right and is in the best interest of Florida families. He answers to them, his family and God — no one else. We couldn’t care less about anonymous sources," Scott spokesperson McKinley Lewis said in a statement to Axios.

  • Graham's office did not respond to a request for comment.
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