Why Is Mitch McConnell Still Leading?


The role of the Senate minority leader demands a master tactician when the chamber is in session and a charismatic strategist during election seasons. Mitch McConnell embodies only one of these qualities, and unfortunately, it’s not the one his party needs most in the coming months. He has already announced his intention to step down from leadership, but only after November’s vote, leaving Republicans lacking critical leadership during the ongoing campaign. Regardless of their sense of loyalty, Republicans would have better chances if they replaced him now.

This issue involves both style and substance. The 81-year-old’s health problems and lapses during public appearances would make him an ineffective spokesperson in any cycle, especially one where Republicans aim to highlight President Joe Biden’s similar issues. But even at his best, McConnell’s core beliefs would still hinder his ability to support his party effectively.

Policy-wise, he is misaligned with the GOP and its standard bearer. His attempt to push a poorly negotiated non-solution to the border crisis on his caucus was disastrous and highlighted his enthusiasm for the uniparty’s open-ended funding of Ukraine over his party’s priorities. He fundamentally disagrees with Donald Trump on critical campaign issues. McConnell is a free trader who cannot advocate for tariffs. He is weak on immigration, allied with big business, and supports expansive foreign policy commitments.

Disagreement with a presidential nominee always poses a challenge, but the problem here is more severe. Trump can be a formidable, perhaps once-in-a-generation campaigner, but also his own worst enemy. While elites may not control many votes, they often influence how a campaign’s message is received, funded, and implemented. The GOP lacks prominent and disciplined messengers, and a credible Senate leader would be valuable. McConnell is absent and a liability if he speaks.

Equally important, the Senate itself hangs in the balance. Most analysts expect Republicans to secure a majority thanks to the races in play, which almost guarantee them 50 seats (assuming wins by Josh Hawley, Rick Scott, and Ted Cruz, who hold comfortable leads in reliably red states). What are the chances that Democrats can retain all five of their vulnerable seats in Montana, Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and also sweep three open seats in Arizona, Maryland, and Michigan?

Last week’s New York Times polling, showing Trump leading Biden in most swing states, found Democrats leading in every Senate race. In Nevada, Trump leads Biden by 12, but the Democrat leads the Senate race by 2. In Arizona, Trump leads by 7, but the Democrat leads by 4. In Pennsylvania, Trump leads by 3, the Democrat by 5. In Wisconsin, where Biden leads by 2, the Democrat leads the Senate race by 9.

The Times found Trump leading in Michigan by 7, but RealClearPolitics polling shows the Senate race tilting narrowly to the Democrats. The Times didn’t even poll Ohio, considered strongly pro-Trump, but RCP shows the Senate Democrat ahead by 5. In Montana, a deep-red Trump state, RCP shows the Democrat ahead by 6. In short, if the election were held today, even with a favorable map and a winner at the top of the ticket, Republicans would still fail to secure more than 50 Senate seats.

This should sound familiar, as it mirrors the last two Republican attempts at a Senate majority. Democrats took the Senate in 2020 when seats flipped in Colorado and Arizona, and incumbent Republicans lost not one but two runoffs in Georgia. In the 2022 midterms, the expected “red wave” never materialized. McConnell was the architect of that debacle, proudly refusing to provide GOP Senate candidates with a clear agenda. He insisted that the unpopularity of incumbent Democrats should be the sole focus. Republicans failed to flip a single seat despite overwhelmingly favorable conditions, even losing a Pennsylvania seat.

Throughout these events, McConnell has failed to unite his caucus behind any coherent message, lacking apparent priorities or vision and disdaining those his party increasingly supports. He neither equips Republican candidates with a positive agenda nor provides the appearance that elected representatives in Washington have a plan. Will this be enough to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Recent history suggests it will.

It is hard to grasp why McConnell remains at his post when Senate Republicans have far better options. Perhaps the best explanation is that replacing him now would mean elevating someone from the New Right who represents the party’s future and can deliver in the campaign. This seems like a strong argument against waiting.

Oren Cass
Oren Cass
Oren Cass is the executive director of American Compass, whose mission is to restore an economic orthodoxy that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity. Cass regularly writes for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Affairs, and National Review, speaks at universities, and testifies before Congress.

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