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McConnell re-elected Senate GOP leader, defeating challenger Rick Scott

The clash represents boiling tensions inside the caucus after Republican Senate candidates underperformed in the midterm elections and failed to win control of the chamber.

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was re-elected as Republican leader Wednesday, defeating a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida that reflects growing anxiety within the party after it underperformed in the midterm elections.

McConnell spokesman David Popp confirmed the secret-ballot victory. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters that 37 Republicans voted for McConnell, while 10 supported Scott and one voted "present." The vote came after the conference rejected a motion by McConnell's dissenters to delay the leadership election, which 16 Republicans voted for, two sources said.

The McConnell-Scott battle represents a larger clash over the direction and governing vision of the party, with the two men offering conflicting theories about why the GOP failed to win Senate seats in the midterms as Democrats clinched the majority. It is the most serious challenge McConnell has faced for his position after having led the Republican caucus for 15 years.

"I believe it’s time for the Senate Republican Conference to be far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past," Scott, who chaired the GOP Senate campaign arm during the 2022 cycle, said in a letter asking for members' votes Tuesday. "We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against. I do not believe we can simply continue to say the Democrats are radical, which they are. Republican voters expect and deserve to know our plan to promote and advance conservative values."

McConnell offered a different diagnosis of the Republican losses at his Tuesday news conference, attributing them to poor candidates and chaotic behavior within the party, which he said “frightened” independents and moderate voters.

“I don’t own this job,” McConnell said Wednesday after the vote. “Anybody who wants to run for it can feel free to do so. So I’m not in any way offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in opposition. I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10.”

Image: Congress Continues Work On Capitol Hill After Election
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaves a meeting with Senate Republicans on Wednesday in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, where he was re-elected as the Republican leader.Win McNamee / Getty Images

McConnell is now on track to become the longest-serving Senate caucus leader in history. Scott chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2022 cycle, which ended in disappointment after the party failed to gain the one seat it needed to capture control of the chamber.

Before Wednesday's leadership vote, Braun said he would back Scott because he believes it is time for a change.

“I’m going to vote for something that’s going to change the current dynamic that we’re in,” he said. “That option is represented by Rick Scott currently.”

Scott's challenge rankled some in the Republican caucus, who attribute the 2022 defeats to his handling of the NRSC.

“Rick Scott must really love to lose,” griped a Senate GOP aide.

Scott and McConnell have long feuded over strategy and vision for the Republican caucus. McConnell has long been the subject of ire from former President Donald Trump, who has campaigned aggressively to oust him as leader.

Tensions ran high Wednesday as numerous Republicans had no interest in getting in the middle of the clash. Among them was Tim Scott of South Carolina, who told reporters asking about the leadership contest, "No habla ingles."

In a lengthy closed-door GOP meeting Tuesday, Susan Collins of Maine questioned management of the NRSC's finances.

“I raised some questions on the amount of money that had been raised and allocated in this cycle versus other cycles and — and just question the differences," she said.

Scott said in a statement Wednesday responding to calls for an audit of the NRSC's money practices that the committee "has done an annual independent audit every year since at least 2014" and that he had learned of "hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized and improper bonuses" sent to staff members after the Republicans lost the majority in 2020.

"When that’s your starting point, you work really hard to make sure there are transparent processes and we are more than happy to sit down with any member of the caucus to walk them through our spending," Scott said.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who was elected as the new NRSC chair Wednesday, said he hopes for a "strong, lasting majority for the Republicans in 2024."