Nov 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP leadership under siege

Side by side photos of Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Photos: Drew Angerer and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have been drawn into battles for control over their respective conferences, inflaming a GOP civil war that's getting uglier by the hour.

Why it matters: The fights playing out in public and behind closed doors highlight the reckoning underway at all levels of the Republican Party following a worse-than-expected showing in last week's midterm elections.

In the Senate: Republican campaign chief Rick Scott (R-Fla.) announced plans to challenge McConnell in an extremely tense, closed-door lunch Tuesday afternoon.

  • Several senators — including Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) — got involved in the crossfire to defend McConnell, multiple sources familiar with the lunch tell Axios.
  • Scott made it official during the multi-hour session by sending out a letter to his colleagues declaring his intent to run against McConnell.

What we're hearing: Scott had been privately considering challenging McConnell for weeks now, long before Senate Republicans' underwhelming performance in the midterm, two people close to the senator tell Axios.

  • The bad blood between Scott and McConnell is no secret, but the tension reached a fever pitch in the days leading up to and following last Tuesday.
  • Their distaste for one another became more glaringly obvious in the hours following Scott's announcement.
  • McConnell allies — such as Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law and former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes — openly attacked Scott's leadership of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

What's next: The full Senate GOP conference will meet at 9:30am ET on Wednesday in the old Senate chamber to discuss this further.

  • If a senator puts forward a motion to delay the leadership elections — which some have already called for until after the Georgia Senate runoff in early December — the full conference will have to vote on it.
  • McConnell insisted after news of Scott's challenge that he has the votes and will be re-elected as minority leader.
  • So far, Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have said they plan to support Scott's challenge.
  • Former President Trump has also publicly pushed Scott to replace McConnell, seeking to pin the blame squarely on McConnell for Republicans' failure to regain the majority in the Senate.

In the House: McCarthy easily prevailed over former Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) for the GOP’s nomination for House speaker, winning by a lopsided 188-31 margin.

  • But each of those 31 votes is another member McCarthy will have to coax to his side by Jan. 3, when just a handful of GOP defections could prevent him from reaching the 218-vote threshold needed to be elected speaker.
  • McCarthy will spend the coming weeks courting the far-right flank of the conference, a process that could involve making some serious concessions in order to secure their votes in the new year.
  • “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” McCarthy said during a press conference after the vote. “We’re going to have a small majority, we’ve got to listen to everyone in our conference.”

What they're saying: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) reiterated his unwavering opposition to McCarthy after the vote and said nothing will change his position.

  • But it’s unclear how many other Freedom Caucus members will take that position come January — especially if they can strike a deal with McCarthy.
  • The key will be amendments to GOP conference rules, which are set to be hashed out in the coming weeks. “Anyone who wants to be speaker ought to embrace those rule changes,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said.

What caught our eye: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has broken with her far-right allies in her defense of McCarthy in recent days, said she plans to try to whip support from members of the Freedom Caucus.

  • “I’ll be talking with all of my colleagues and explaining my reasons for supporting him,” she told reporters.
  • As for Democrats, McCarthy said he won’t try to enlist their help to reach 218: "We’re the majority. As Republicans, we’ll get there."
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