Tensions between two top Senate Republicans — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rick Scott, who runs the chamber's campaign arm — are running high amid rising dissent within the party over McConnell's hammerlock on the top leadership job.
Hush-hush sniping between the Scott and McConnell camps spilled out into public view this week after Democrats clinched Senate control, with allies of the two men sniping at one another on social media and in the press. Now, a top adviser to Scott is questioning McConnell's commitment to winning Georgia's Dec. 6 runoff election that will decide the limits of Democratic power in the Senate, citing a lack of spending so far by the GOP leader's aligned super PAC.
“Extremely odd. 1 week already gone, only three to go,” the adviser, Curt Anderson, told NBC News via text message. “It would be complete malpractice and dereliction of duty to leave Herschel Walker behind.”
Anderson stopped just short of accusing McConnell of completely abandoning Walker.
Hours after this article was published, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund announced a $14.2 million radio, TV and digital ad buy, dwarfing the $700,000 from Scott's organization, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as the more than $4 million Senate Democrats’ main super PAC says it has reserved on the air to support Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Also Tuesday, Scott announced he would challenge McConnell for his Senate post as Republican leader.
The rare public dispute between Scott and McConnell has been brewing for two years and is rooted in divisions over strategy and vision for the party, with former President Donald Trump playing a central role in the conflict as he blames McConnell for the party’s failures. Scott, who has barely concealed his larger ambitions, has sought to align himself more with the Trump wing of the party.
Trump recruited Walker to run, and McConnell allies and establishment Republican figures initially resisted the pick, worried that the former football star hadn't been vetted and that questions about his personal and professional life would trigger a brutal Democratic counterattack. But McConnell endorsed Walker in the primary, after which Democrats unloaded on the Republican nominee in a brutal ad campaign.
The Dec. 6 Georgia runoff between Walker and Warnock won’t decide the balance of power in the Senate, now that Democrats are assured control. But there is still a lot at stake for both parties. A win by Democrats would give them more procedural power, while a Republican victory would put the party in a stronger position to take control of the chamber in 2024.
On Tuesday, the sniping intensified when the CEO of McConnell’s committee, Steven Law, highlighted a tweet that suggested the NRSC was scamming donors by soliciting email contributions on Walker’s behalf but steering only 10% of the proceeds to the candidate, which his campaign has asked other Republicans to refrain from doing.
“Good committees raise enough so that they don’t have to steal from their candidates,” Law wrote.
The NRSC fired back, pointing out that the organization has pledged to spend all it can on Walker. And Walker’s campaign agreed with that assessment, according to a source with the Senate campaign who didn’t want to speak on the record and take sides in the feud.
“We just want everyone to support Herschel so we can win,” the source said.
The squabbling comes as some Republicans are already worried about a repeat of the 2020 election, when party divisions contributed to the defeat of two GOP incumbents in a runoff in Georgia and delivered Senate control to Democrats by the slimmest of margins, empowering President Joe Biden.
“That’s always a fear. It’s happened to us already. Hopefully, we learned from it,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., told NBC News. “You gotta have a game plan. I’m a football coach. You got to change it — you got to see what worked last time, what didn’t work, and make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes this time.”
Former Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, was more blunt: “An elephant divided against itself cannot stand.”
Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Jack Pandol pointed out that the fund had already spent $39 million to help Walker, and it plans to drop another $2 million to take over Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s “best in class ground game” to knock on 500,000 doors and turn Republican voters out for Walker.
“SLF is already all-in on electing Herschel Walker to the Senate,” Pandol said. “We will be placing advertising buys shortly to reinforce that effort.”
But even Kemp loyalists aren’t sure how much the “ground game” matters when it comes to winning Georgia, where the governor defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by 7.6 percentage points while Warnock edged Walker by slightly less than a point, as neither topping the 50% needed to win outright.
“Did it [the ground operation] help Kemp win? A little,” said one Kemp adviser who requested anonymity to avoid wading into a GOP family feud. “But the fact is that this is Georgia. It’s a big state. You need to be on TV, and we can’t be outspent in the Senate race.”
Anderson argued time is of the essence.
“They should get involved as soon as possible,” Anderson said of Senate Leadership Fund. “They’ve already missed a week.”
Democrats are pushing ahead, with the Warnock campaign launching new TV and digital ads while an allied Democratic group, Senate Majority PAC, has pledged upward of $4 million in air cover and is already airing an ad in Georgia attacking Walker.
After Republicans failed to win control of the Senate this week, top McConnell and Scott allies pointed fingers.
McConnell adviser Josh Holmes told The Wall Street Journal that the NRSC “was run basically as a Rick Scott super PAC, where they didn’t want or need to input any GOP senators whatsoever. That’s a huge break from recent history where members have been pretty intimately involved.”
NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline responded Monday on Twitter to call Holmes’ claim “utter nonsense of course, evidenced by the fact that there are zero GOP senators quoted in the story echoing this claim.”
Tensions between the two Senate sides have been noticeably brewing since Scott took over the reins of the NRSC after the 2020 elections. At the time, Scott bucked McConnell by voting against certifying the 2020 election results after a pro-Trump mob sacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The riot came a day after Republicans lost control of the Senate thanks to a rare double-header special election runoff when both GOP incumbents were defeated by their Democratic challengers, one of whom was Warnock. Many Republicans, especially those in McConnell’s orbit, blamed Trump and his lies about the 2020 elections for depressing Republican turnout and pushing college-educated voters into the arms of Democrats.
Scott and McConnell have had a strained relationship ever since.
Trump tried to recruit Senate candidates and senators to vote against McConnell as Republican leader. Scott, in his first term from Florida, hasn't committed to challenging McConnell for GOP leader, and on Monday, McConnell, who has represented Kentucky since 1985, replied "of course" when asked if he has the votes to keep the position. But Scott and a few other senators have called for a delay in the Senate leadership elections. For their part, McConnell allies have also questioned why Trump didn't spend more money to help Republican candidates this year.
Earlier this year, Scott released a policy agenda that McConnell summarily rejected and Democrats seized on, telling voters his plan to sunset federal laws after five years would end Social Security and Medicare.
Roberts, who retired after the 2020 election, said McConnell and Scott must set aside their differences to win Georgia.
“That’ll happen, I’m sure. Well, I’m not sure. But we can’t afford to have people wandering off the reservation,” he said. “Just can’t do that.”