Why Mitch McConnell Is Really Stepping Down in November

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Wednesday that he would not seek another term as Republican leader, ending a record stretch as the longest-serving party leader in Senate history. McConnell, who just turned 82, still intends to serve out his term ending in 2027. There will be years yet to process his towering influence over American politics and policy in the 21st century.

The timing of McConnell’s announcement was unexpected. While we cannot know what calculations he did to announce his lame-duck status on Wednesday, Feb. 28, we can be certain there were calculations. But the decision to step aside come November, itself, is not surprising. While it’s hard to imagine a world where McConnell is both alive and not leading the Senate GOP, all signs this Congress have been pointing to this decision.

First, there is McConnell’s age. While some view their early 80s as a time to renew their tenures atop American politics, McConnell acknowledged in a floor speech that his recent 82nd birthday reminded him that the “end of my contributions are closer than I’d prefer.” McConnell had suffered a concussion from a fall in early 2023 that sidelined him for weeks, and later in the year, he froze into silence multiple times during public press conferences. While he insisted that he was fine, and he’s had no such public incidents since, he has not been getting any younger.

The bigger issue, though, is that McConnell, a Reagan-era conservative, has found himself more and more at odds with the party’s new MAGA establishment. This has put him on the outs not just with Donald Trump, but with newer members of his own conference as well. Old friends and allies with an interest in governance, including Lamar Alexander, Rob Portman, and Roy Blunt, have left, while performers like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance have entered. A younger, power-hungry McConnell might have adapted to the mores of Trumpism, but McConnell on the back end of his career has worked to resist them. And it’s cost him a significant amount of political capital.

For most of McConnell’s tenure as Republican leader, dissent was minimal. McConnell was made leader because his conference trusted him to call the shots. He called the shots well enough to keep his job, with little disturbance, for 17 years.

And his legacy is as defined by his role as minority leader as it is majority leader, and his use of raw political power to redefine each. As minority leader under President Obama, he solidified obstructionism, and the need for 60 votes to accomplish anything, as the norm within the Senate. As majority leader under Obama, he blocked the president from filling an open seat on the Supreme Court; under the Trump administration, he created an unprecedented judicial confirmation machine that confirmed 234 federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices—most of them extremely conservative and eager to align with the GOP platform.

But McConnell’s strategy in the last Congress, during the first two years of the Biden administration, was more collaborative with the Democrats in power, frustrating a vocal, emerging right-wing faction within his conference. McConnell signed off on various bipartisan initiatives—an infrastructure law, a gun safety bill, a new high-tech industrial policy, and more—in part to preserve the legislative filibuster against Democratic threats to eliminate it.

In compromising with Biden on policy, McConnell split his conference on numerous high-profile votes. His right flank argued that McConnell’s leadership weakened Republicans’ message heading into the 2022 midterms. For the first time in his long tenure, McConnell faced a challenge in the ensuing leadership elections as 10 members defected to support Florida Sen. Rick Scott.

That schism within the party has deepened this Congress as McConnell has dedicated himself to another issue that sharply splits the party: continued military assistance for Ukraine. Pushing that through, as the Trump-led Republican party has turned further inward by the day, has become his legacy mission, internal politics be damned.

“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 in his floor speech Wednesday. “For as long as I am drawing breath on this earth, I will defend American exceptionalism.”

In pushing for Ukraine aid the last six months, McConnell has taken hits to his standing that he previously would not have exposed himself to. He recommended tanking a House-passed government spending bill last fall that omitted Ukraine aid, but was overruled by his conference and fellow leaders.

He then sanctioned negotiations for a bipartisan border security bill, which fellow Republicans had been insisting they wanted in exchange for Ukraine aid. He had to have known that this ultimately would be a suicide mission; a McConnell with more to lose would never have walked into immigration negotiations amid presidential election-year politics.

Once the border deal was killed, though, McConnell helped Majority Leader Chuck Schumer muscle Ukraine aid through the chamber anyway, despite opposition from the majority of the Senate Republican Conference.

In his speech Wednesday, McConnell acknowledged that these were not the most popular moves within his party.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” McConnell said. “It is why I worked so hard to get the national security package passed earlier this month. Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

McConnell understands the implications of a change at the White House next year, too. He and Trump have not spoken since Dec. 2020. And while a cease-fire between the two camps to preserve comity through the general election could be reached, their relationship is fundamentally irreparable. Were Trump to win the White House and demand a leadership change within the Senate GOP, McConnell would have a true fight on his hands. Even if he were to stick on, would he really want to spend another two years taking orders from, and contorting himself to defend, Donald Trump? It would not have been tenable.

No, that job of acquiescence to a would-be President Trump’s whims will go to one of the “three Johns” looking to succeed McConnell: Thune, Cornyn, or Barrasso. None of them are rookies, exactly. Whether any of them will have the stature to resist Trump when certain bright lines are crossed, however, is an open question.

Then again, McConnell will still be in the background for a couple more years. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said toward the end of his speech. “I still have enough gas in the tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics, and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm which they have become accustomed.”