Mitch McConnell to Step Down as Republican Senate Leader in November

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday, after announcing that he will step down from Republican leadership.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to step down from his leadership position in November, he announced Wednesday, a move that would mark the end of his tenure as the longest-serving Senate leader in American history.

The announcement marks the beginning of the end of an era in American politics. McConnell has been a towering force over his decades in the Senate, enraging Democrats by using hardball tactics to reshape the federal judiciary and later serving as an occasional voice of rebuke to former president Donald Trump, whom he excoriated publicly for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Recently, McConnell has been the loudest voice in his party pushing for the United States to aid Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and he has faced sharp criticism from some in his conference more closely aligned with Trump. He has also faced health issues in the past year after a fall, including an incident in which he froze during a news conference in the Capitol.

McConnell had already decided he was not going to run for leader again even before he fell and suffered a concussion at a fundraiser last year, according to two people familiar with his decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. After the holidays, he let a small circle of aides and advisers know he was ready to announce his decision, they said, and was just looking for the right time to do so.

The announcement probably kicks off a nearly year-long jockeying process to replace McConnell, who has next to no relationship with Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee. That estrangement, worsened by Trump’s racist attacks against McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, had made McConnell’s hold over his conference slightly more tenuous.

McConnell announced his intention to leave his leadership position in an introspective speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, saying it had been a difficult time for his family after the loss of his wife’s younger sister and giving a rare acknowledgment of his advanced age.

“When you lose a loved one, particularly at a young age, there’s a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process,” McConnell said. “Perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you of your own life’s journey, to reprioritize the impact of the world that we will all inevitably leave behind. I turned 82 last week and the end of my contributions are closer than I’d prefer.”

McConnell recounted the beginning of his congressional career in 1984, at age 42, during the Reagan administration.

“If you would have told me 40 years later that I would stand before you as the longest-serving Senate leader in American history, frankly, I would have thought you’d lost your mind,” he said.

He suggested that he will finish out his term, which goes through 2026.

The Kentuckian has spent the past few months locked in a battle with some in his conference to send billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, which is fending off a Russian invasion. The more isolationist wing of the party – championed by Trump – opposes the aid, and McConnell has painted aiding the U.S. ally in existential terms, joining nearly two dozen Republicans in voting for it this month.

He said he was leaving the chamber with “total clarity and peace” about the role he played furthering his ideals, despite the party not being in step with him.

“I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” he said. “I have many faults. 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.”

President Biden, who served alongside McConnell in the Senate for many years, said he was “sorry” to hear he was stepping aside. “I’ve trusted him and we have a great relationship,” Biden said. “We fight like hell. But he has never, never, never misrepresented anything.”

Senators said they were surprised by the announcement. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) shook McConnell’s hand after the speech, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a longtime ally, embraced him. McConnell’s most emotional greeting came from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.). McConnell wrapped her in a long hug, then grasped her hands as the two spoke quietly. When Collins gave impromptu remarks after McConnell’s speech, Sinema sat alone on the GOP side of the chamber and wiped away tears.

McConnell vowed to be the “Grim Reaper” if Democrats won back the White House in 2020 but earned the ire of those on the right by occasionally working with Democrats on shared priorities, including recent votes for a large infrastructure package and funding for U.S. allies. In earlier years, he enraged Democrats by blocking President Barack Obama from filling the Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, and later quickly moved to fill the seat vacated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020. The hardball tactics drew rebukes from some good governance experts, although McConnell has expressed a reverence for the institution of the Senate in other arenas – including for maintaining the long-standing filibuster rule that requires a supermajority to pass most legislation.

“McConnell has shown good judgment several times on Trump’s extreme positions,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 ranking Senate Democrat. “I hope that whoever succeeds him will [do the same] if Trump is still on the scene.”

McConnell’s decision also launches the campaign to replace him in the difficult job of keeping a conference together that spans abortion rights moderates such as Collins and staunch Trump acolytes such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

The leading contenders to replace him include McConnell’s top deputy, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) – all of whom have endorsed Trump for reelection.

“I think … the gift that Mitch has given us is the runway to actually really contemplate it and have them audition,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.

“He leaves really big shoes to fill,” Thune conceded, declining to say whether he will run to replace McConnell.

Another member of leadership demurred when asked whether he will eventually run for the leadership position.

“That election’s nine months away, and there’s a much more important election between now and then. And that’s the election we need to take the presidency and the Senate and the House, and that’s where my focus is,” said Barrasso, the third-highest-ranking Senate Republican. Cornyn said he’s “made no secret” of his intentions to run.

Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and longtime McConnell ally, said he believes McConnell will continue to play an active role in the Senate even after he steps down and may want to be in leadership on the Appropriations Committee. “You’re going to see him free from the responsibilities of leadership,” he said.

McConnell’s legacy includes fighting fiercely against reining in the role of money in politics, as he worked to expand corporations’ and individuals’ ability to contribute vast sums to political candidates and causes. He even took a member of his conference, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to court over the issue after the senator passed bipartisan legislation pushing campaign finance limits.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) choked back tears after McConnell’s speech. “There’s not been a better leader who has been more focused on the integrity of the institution,” she said.

But some said they welcomed a new chapter without McConnell at the helm.

“I presume since some of the division is reflected against his leadership, new leadership will unify the caucus,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has been critical of McConnell over Ukraine and other issues, said he would prefer he step aside even sooner.

“We’ve got to turn the page here as a party,” he said.