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Why some Republican senators are revolting against Mitch McConnell

They’re mad about the midterms, and the party’s lack of clear policy agenda.

Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Capitol building, with a decorated ceiling visible behind him.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters after meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol on November 15, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

After facing his first leadership challenge in 15 years, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has won reelection to that role, defeating a last minute bid from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).

Republicans elected McConnell 37-10-1, with one senator voting present, according to CNN. That vote followed a contentious lunch discussion on Tuesday as members of the party tried to reckon with a disappointing midterms performance that some blamed on the minority leader.

Those who opposed McConnell had a number of grievances: They saw him as responsible for Republicans’ failure to win any new seats in the upper chamber, arguing that he didn’t give candidates enough of an agenda to run on. They also wanted more control over policy going forward, saying he hasn’t been inclusive enough when it comes to establishing legislative priorities.

In an attempt to express his frustration, Scott, the head of the Republicans’ campaign arm, announced his challenge on Monday. “The status quo is broken and big change is needed. It’s time for new leadership in the Senate,” Scott said in a post that followed a vigorous three-and-a-half-hour lunch discussion, during which Republicans discussed what they needed to do differently in order to win in the future.

Scott’s candidacy was always a long shot. To win the minority leader position, he needed a majority of the 49-member conference, or at least 25 votes. In the end, he fell short, with just 10 Republicans — including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Mike Braun (R-IN), and Ron Johnson (R-WI) — supporting his candidacy. Some lawmakers, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), had called for the leadership vote to be delayed until after the Georgia runoff, but a motion to push the vote failed as well.

McConnell was widely expected to win given the support he had from many members and his record as leader, including his success in stacking the courts with Republican judges. “I have the votes. I will be elected. The only issue is whether it will be sooner or later,” he emphasized during a press conference on Tuesday.

The Republican dissent — much like the conflict in the House, however — is a clear sign that certain lawmakers aren’t fully satisfied with how the party is being run, and signals more soul-searching about its direction ahead of 2024.

Why some Republicans are mad at McConnell

The frustration with McConnell centered on a few issues: First, that Republicans didn’t have a pitch to voters other than that they aren’t Democrats, and second, that the process for developing policy has been top-down.

“What leadership didn’t do on our side was give our candidates any affirmative agenda to run on that would actually appeal to working-class and independent voters,” Hawley, one of the vocal Scott supporters, told Vox.

Because they were in the minority during the current Congress, Republicans didn’t have legislative wins to emphasize like Democrats did, leading to disagreements between McConnell and Scott over what approach to take when it came to messaging.

The two have long clashed over whether Republicans should put forth a specific policy agenda explaining what they would do with a majority, or focus more broadly on attacks on Democrats and issues like people’s discontent with inflation. McConnell has favored the latter, while Scott introduced his own policy wish list earlier this year. Scott’s list included many policies that the party’s most traditional conservatives were against, and he garnered blowback, including a public rebuke from McConnell, for pushing unpopular proposals like sunsetting Social Security and Medicare.

This cycle, Republicans had a decent chance of winning back Senate control, but failed to do so after losing key states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, where candidates that the party chose were further to the right and dinged for being of poor quality. Since then, Republicans have been reflecting on the cause of such losses, as well as who is responsible for them.

McConnell this week emphasized, as he has before, that candidate quality was a serious problem for the conference, a subject he and Scott have also differed on previously. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott headed this past cycle, has been reluctant to get involved in Republican primaries, arguing that doing so disregards the will of the voters, while McConnell has advocated for steering voters toward candidates with the best chance of being competitive in general elections.

Separately, Republicans expressed concerns that the legislative process wasn’t an open one that factored in different members’ input. Multiple lawmakers noted that this experience could be improved to add in different people’s suggestions. Hawley said, too, that Republicans should stop supporting deals that give Democrats legislative wins.

“You’ve got to make your case clearly of what we’re for. I just believe that that has to be very interactive with all senators, it can’t be laid upon our lap in 2,000-page bills that none of us have any idea [of] or input in how we got that,” Braun, a Scott backer, told reporters.

There have been critiques in both parties about how the legislative process currently works, with policies often created by small groups sanctioned by party leaders, or designed by leaders themselves.

There have also been plenty of complaints about how last-minute deals between party bosses lead to sudden votes on massive bills like the bipartisan infrastructure package and the Inflation Reduction Act, which can force lawmakers to make a quick decision on lengthy policies they haven’t had time to review or debate.

Scott promised he wouldn’t surprise members with legislation, and that he wouldn’t pressure people to vote in a way that’s counter to their constituents’ interests.

McConnell — and others — pointed to his record

In his own defense, McConnell pointed to his record leading the conference in both the majority and minority — experience that’s included confirming multiple Supreme Court Justices and conservative judges.

“Obviously he got a lot of judges confirmed, three confirmed in the Supreme Court,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who backed McConnell, told Vox. “Leadership roles are hard and you got 49 different personalities in there that everybody wants to do it their way, you’re herding cats.”

McConnell’s experience was clearly sufficient for many Republicans, who acknowledge that things could be improved, but say they’re still satisfied with the general leadership they have now. “I think a lot of it is people are disappointed with the outcome of the election,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters regarding the discontent some members have expressed.

While McConnell decisively won Wednesday’s election, Republicans said they welcomed the discussion about how things were being run and how they could potentially be improved in the future. Many indicated that the party needed to do some self-reflection ahead of 2024, when they have a more favorable map and hope to avoid the losses they experienced this cycle.

“We’ve not been hitting it out of the park … for a couple of decades and that’s because we don’t have a game plan for Americans,” said Braun.

Update, November 16, 3:25 pm: This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Mitch McConnell has won the race for GOP Senate minority leader against Sen. Rick Scott.

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