Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he'll step down as Senate Republican leader in November.
McConnell announced he’ll step down as Republican leader in November. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Republican Party Has Already Moved On From Mitch McConnell

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” the Republican leader said on Wednesday.

Mitch McConnell’s announcement he’ll step down as Senate Republican leader at the end of the year leaves a lot of questions unanswered about what Congress will accomplish before then. But it clearly resolves a different matter: McConnell — and Republican senators who share his view of America’s role in the world — don’t fit in Donald Trump’s party.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has led the Senate Republican conference for 17 years, acknowledged that fact in his surprise announcement on Wednesday afternoon.

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” he said of GOP opposition to more aid for Ukraine’s defense against Russia, one of McConnell’s most urgent priorities. But, he 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.”

McConnell said he will step down in November, at which point the GOP conference will select a new leader to steer the party’s priorities beginning in January of 2025, when the next Congress begins.

Until then, he said, “I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics, and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they’ve become accustomed.”

McConnell contended with a vocal faction of younger detractors within his own party at the start of this Congress, who pushed him to step down and make way for new leadership. Some of those senators celebrated his decision on Wednesday.

“This is a good development,” said Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, who opposes more aid to Ukraine. “The question is why wait so long. I mean, November is a long time away. We have a lot to achieve between now and then. We need new leadership now is my view, but this is better than nothing.”

And Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a Trump ally, said he hopes McConnell’s replacement will be “a little bit more responsive to my concerns that the country has become over-extended, diplomatically and militarily.”

Vance also said McConnell’s departure will help Republicans remain unified if Trump wins the White House in November. Vance wants to have “a leader who can work well with the next Republican president,” he told reporters. McConnell worked alongside Trump on matters ranging from tax policy to health care to national security during Trump’s presidency, and he frequently refused to publicly criticize him in moments of crisis, disruption or simple incompetence. But McConnell did blame Trump for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a mob of his supporters, who were seeking at the time to overturn lawful 2020 presidential election results.

Trump, McConnell said in a Senate floor speech at the time, was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” But those comments came only after the Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges, and since then, McConnell has said he would support Trump if he is the Republican presidential nominee. McConnell and Trump’s allies are reported to have been negotiating an endorsement of Trump by McConnell, but none has materialized yet.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who is not seeking reelection and has been one of Trump’s most vocal critics, speculated McConnell’s decision has more to do with age than being unwelcome in today’s Republican Party. “He’s 82 years old, and he’s decided it’s time to pass the baton to the next generation,” Romney said Wednesday. “That’s something I’ve been saying a long time. I made the decision myself, even though I’m a spry 76.”

Still, said Romney, “It’s very clear that my party is dominated by President Trump. And I think the wing of the party that I represent is so small, it’s the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex-like arm.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, said he wasn’t surprised by McConnell’s choice. “He’s had, obviously, health problems.”

In June of last year, McConnell froze during a press conference, followed by a similar incident in August. McConnell brushed off the episodes at the time and said he was able to continue in his role.

“His decision is to be respected, his service to be respected, his leadership is to be celebrated,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican. “And we’re going to have a good year.”

As for his successor, Lummis said, she isn’t sure a particularly strong relationship with Trump is needed, “but having at least a cordial relationship will be important.”

“They are really big shoes to fill,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who serves as the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate and who has eyed a leadership run. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota pointed to Thune’s recent endorsement of Trump as “an appropriate move for a leader in our conference to do.”

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Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said he isn’t worried about what comes next.

“Any of the people interested in the job would work fine with Donald Trump and Donald Trump with them,” he said Wednesday.

Lame-duck congressional leaders often have more leeway to advance their priorities — and ignore dissent within their party — than leaders who are seeking another term. McConnell said Wednesday that as long as he’s “drawing breath on this earth, I will defend American exceptionalism” and signaled he will continue to push for a national security package to assist Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

“Mitch remains the leader and will be through November, and I think his influence will remain far beyond November,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has not said how he voted in the last GOP internal conference election. “As long as he’s here, he’ll have influence over what’s happening, no doubt about it.”

But Rubio said he believes “whatever was going to happen with Ukraine aid is going to continue to happen, irrespective of what happened, his decision, his announcement today.”

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters he sees the moment as an opportunity to assess “what is our conference about, what is our mission?”

“It’s very important to have a mission, vision statement for your organization,” he said. “And that’s something I think we’ve been lacking.”

“This is obviously an end of an era. It’s historic that he’s served as leader for so long,” Johnson added. “Have we had disagreements? Sure. We have a broad spectrum of opinion in our conference. But I think we respect each other, and I certainly wish the leader well.”

Haley Byrd Wilt and Oriana González are reporters at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.