McConnell to Step Down as Republican Senate Leader in November

February 28, 2024 by Dan McCue
McConnell to Step Down as Republican Senate Leader in November
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks off the Senate floor after speaking, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday he is stepping down as his party’s leader in the Senate, bringing the curtain down on a historic tenure in the chamber.

McConnell’s announcement was apparently something of a surprise to his colleagues as he announced it on a sparsely populated Senate floor.

Speaking in a strong voice that occasionally trembled with emotion, the 82-year-old senator said he’d been thinking about when he would “deliver some news” to his colleagues in the Senate.

“I always imagined a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work … a moment when I’m certain I have helped preserve the ideals,” he said. “I strongly believe that day arrived today.”

With that, McConnell announced this would be his last term as Republican leader of the Senate.

“I’m not going anywhere, anytime soon,” he said. “I’ll complete the job my colleagues have given me until we select a new leader in November and they take the helm next January. 

“I’ll finish the job that the people of Kentucky hired me to do as well, albeit from a different seat. And I’m actually looking forward to that,” he said with a slight smile. 

McConnell’s current term runs through 2027.

“So it’s time for me to think about another season of life,” the senator continued. “There may have been more distinguished members of this body throughout its history, but I doubt any had any more admiration for the Senate [than I]. 

“After all this time, I still feel thrilled walking into the Capitol and especially on this venerable floor, knowing that each of us has the honor to represent our state and do the important work of our country,” he said.

“But Father Time remains undefeated. I’m no longer the young man sitting in the back hoping colleagues would remember my name. It is time for the next generation of leadership.”

First elected to the Senate in 1984, McConnell, a one-time moderate who became more conservative as time went on, soon established himself in the eyes of his colleagues due to his skills as a political strategist.

From 1997 to 2001, McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the body charged with securing electoral victories for Republicans, and from there he jumped to majority whip, a post he held from 2003 to 2006.

After Republicans lost control of the Senate in November 2006, McConnell was elected minority leader, a post he held until being elevated to Senate majority leader after his party’s wins in the 2015 elections.

In June 2018, McConnell became the longest serving Republican leader in the chamber’s history, surpassing former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.

But in the past year, his future in that position has been increasingly questioned.

One reason was his health, particularly after he appeared to freeze up while speaking to reporters at the Capitol.

He’s also been increasingly at odds with the factions of his party that have fallen under the spell of former President Donald Trump, with whom he often sparred and whose MAGA politics he largely disagrees with.

The rift between the two men also has a deeply personal component to it. Trump has repeatedly spoken of McConnell’s wife, Elane Chao, in racist and demeaning terms, while the Republican leader has directly laid responsibility for the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol at the ex-president’s feet.

McConnell acknowledged his philosophical differences with the direction of his party during his remarks.

“I have many faults,” he said. “Misunderstanding politics is not one of them. 

“That said, I believe more strongly than ever that America’s global leadership is essential to preserving the shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan discussed. As long as I’m drawing breath on this earth, I will defend American exceptionalism,” he said.

Among those reacting to McConnell’s announcement was Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who said it was “truly a ‘passing of the torch’ moment for the U.S. Senate.”

“Sen. McConnell will be remembered as one of the most effective leaders in the history of the U.S. Senate,” Graham continued. “Through sheer force of will, he has shaped the federal judiciary in a conservative fashion.

“No one in the Republican Party has echoed the themes of peace through strength — the Reagan model of national security — better than Sen. Mitch McConnell,” Graham said.

“He passionately believes in a strong America leading from the front and has been uncompromising in his view that we must deal with threats rather than wish them away,” he added.

Graham went on to say he is looking forward to continuing to work with McConnell “in the coming days and months as we address major challenges like securing the southern border and helping our friends in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

“There is much to be done, and I’m sure that Mitch will run through the finish line as Republican leader,” Graham said.

Also commenting was President Joe Biden, a long time Senate colleague of McConnell’s, who told White House pool reporters, “He and I have trust. We’ve got a great relationship. We fight like hell but he never, never, never misrepresented anything. I’m sorry to hear he’s stepping down.”

The question now is who will replace McConnell after the 2024 elections.

The three most likely candidates are Senate Minority Whip John Thune, of South Dakota, Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso,of Wyoming, or Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas.

Thune, in particular, seems to have the inside track at the moment, having served as McConnell’s stand-in during the leader’s absences due to health and other reasons.

“It leaves, obviously, big shoes to fill,” Thune told reporters following McConnell’s announcement. 

“Today we’ll reflect on his service and honor him for that,” he said.

Asked if he was planning to formally announce his intention to succeed McConnell, Thune essentially said, wait and see.

“We’ll let you know soon what we’re thinking,” he said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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