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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell departs the Capitol on Dec. 11. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

It took four years and an election defeat. But someone with real power inside the Republican Party is standing up to — and swatting back — President Trump: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Why it matters: This is a preview of the power struggle that will define the Republican Party in 2021.

You saw this with McConnell acknowledging Joe Biden as President-elect.

  • You saw this with McConnell blocking Trump's push to raise stimulus checks to $2,000, which would have split Senate Republicans.
  • And you're seeing it now with his effort to curtail futile resistance by the GOP to congressional certification of Biden's victory.

Yes, but: Until now, McConnell's strategy was buffeted by the chaos Trump created. Now, the Senate leader — whose autobiography is called "The Long Game" — is finally able to set the party's course.

  • "McConnell is trying to reclaim the role he had in 2009 — leader of the opposition to a new Democratic president," said a Republican operative familiar with the leader's thinking.

What he's thinking: Depending on the outcome of Tuesday's Georgia runoffs, McConnell will have to find a way to protect — or regain — a Senate majority, in the face of Trump and his operatives promoting candidates who could win primaries but might well lose.

  • During Trump's presidency, Axios' Margaret Talev points out, McConnell gained from an alliance that yielded 200+ lifetime judgeships — including three Supreme Court justices. As ex-president, Trump carries more liability. 

The bottom line: Beginning 19 days from now, McConnell is the most powerful Republican in the land.

Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
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Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 6: Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 6: Georgia had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 and Donald Trump's defeat in this Deep South stronghold, and his reaction to that loss, would help cost Republicans the U.S. Senate as well. Georgia was Trump's last stand.

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.

12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP leaders skip Trump send-off in favor of church with Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in July. Photo: Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional leaders, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will skip President Trump's departure ceremony in Maryland tomorrow morning in favor of attending mass with incoming President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration, congressional sources familiar with their plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their decision is a clear sign of unity before Biden takes the oath of office.

Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness ... Trump: "Sometimes you need a little crazy"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."