McConnell departure leaves GOP's Reagan wing reeling

In his surprise speech announcing his exit as Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell did not spend much time reflecting on the presidents he served with. Except for Ronald Reagan.

Hardly the sentimental type, McConnell recalled arriving in the Senate at the height of the Reagan era and even getting married on Reagan’s birthday. For much of the rest of his party, the Kentucky Republican might as well have been talking about ancient history.

McConnell’s planned departure from the top of the GOP conference will break the Republican Party’s most influential link to an earlier, pre-Trump type of conservatism — one anchored in hawkish foreign policy, pro-business economic policies and an emphatic rejection of populism. And his prominent invocation of Reagan came as his party reckons with an increasingly clear transfer of power in its ranks.

At the moment, McConnell’s successor as leader is likely to be influenced heavily by a growing bloc of senators who align more with Trump’s pugnacious, America-First image than with the Reaganite conservative tradition.

J.D. Vance, a first-term Republican senator and outspoken member of the party’s new guard, didn’t disavow Reagan’s legacy but said he was “much less crazy about foreign policy than neoconservatives assumed he was.”

“But look, do I think this represents a bit of a change in the guard? Sure it does,” Vance added of McConnell’s exit.

McConnell still has 10 months as GOP leader to address some major unfinished business: A huge foreign aid bill, winning back the Senate majority and keeping his fractious party from going off the rails altogether. Those issues could augment his record of bending the judiciary to the right and keeping his party on a Reaganite track when it comes to foreign affairs — not to mention his efforts at a delicate balance between thwarting and accepting Trump.

But McConnell could find himself even more hamstrung on those goals than he was before, thanks to the slow evolution of the Senate GOP. After spending several years content to move independent of Trump, Senate Republicans are starting to look more like their House counterparts: skeptical of foreign aid, reluctant to cross the former president and, at times, openly critical of their leadership.

It’s a positive transition for some; Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was downright ebullient about moving away from McConnell. Others, even from the opposing party, fear that the institution will suffer without him.

“He was part of keeping the Senate from becoming the Jerry Springer show that the House is,” said Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), one of several Democrats to lament McConnell’s exit on Wednesday.

The GOP leader still wields significant influence and has gotten new Ukraine aid as far as he can for the moment, pushing a bipartisan $95 billion foreign aid package over to the House despite the howls of his loudest critics. That he even did that is notable, given how many times over the past six months that his party sounded ready to move on from the internal fight over funding a proxy defense against Russia.

Now that McConnell is exiting as leader, some are hopeful for a bigger reboot in party priorities. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said that “Americans — whether it’s the Ukraine issue or whether it’s the border issue … the vast majority are saying it’s time.”

“The Republican Party is going through a pretty dramatic transition. Our voter base has continued to evolve into a working class party,” added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), himself a product of the tea party movement. “That’s obviously playing out in the halls of Congress within our party as well.”

The timing of McConnell’s announcement left senators reluctant to read too much into his departure. Several of them denied that Trump played a direct role in the decision and predicted a lengthy competition for his replacement, rather than Trump anointing one.

His allies insisted that he didn’t exit because of his fading influence or because he feared defeat. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said that McConnell would have won “resoundingly” had he sought another term as leader.

Nonetheless, the timing shocked Senate Republicans: McConnell is in the middle of a tough internal GOP conflict over Ukraine, trying to keep the government open, and steering his party to a Senate majority. Many Republicans were blunt in asking: Why now, at this moment?

“All of us were a little taken aback that it happened today,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the No. 4 GOP leader. “We all maybe could have seen it coming in the future. But maybe not this soon.”

In his own tactical fashion, McConnell told his colleagues he had decided long ago he wouldn’t run, but didn’t want to put them through a protracted leadership conflict. He also nodded to his changing party on Wednesday, both in brief private remarks and on the Senate floor: “I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

Perhaps he was just stating the obvious after facing his first-ever challenge to his leadership in November 2022, when he handily dispatched Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). But his recognition that now is the time to end his record-breaking run as leader was enough to freeze many of his critics, perhaps just for a day, as the GOP promptly began a debate about its new era.

“It’s a tough job. I’m glad his health is recovering. I thought he gave a great speech. He came into lunch, got a standing ovation, a lot of respect,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a pugnacious critic. “Let’s leave it at that.”

The Ukraine policy schism in the GOP is directly related to a political one over Trump. McConnell’s timetable for leaving means he’ll still face months of questions over his relationship with the likely presidential nominee. He’s declined to endorse Trump despite the majority of his conference doing so.

Most acutely for McConnell, Trump is using his rising sway to try to stop Ukraine aid — as he sought to unravel plenty of other bipartisan deals McConnell blessed over the past few years. A lengthy impasse between McConnell and Trump could leave Republicans looking divided while Democrats manage to rally around their octogenarian leader, President Joe Biden.

“The big thing I think has got to happen is, there’s got to be some conversation between McConnell and Trump,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). “And I know President Trump is going to want to try to reach out to him.”

Tuberville added that “we can’t go into an election without Leader McConnell supporting President Trump,” noting the need for Republicans to fundraise and present a united front. McConnell dodged a question on endorsing Trump as recently as Tuesday.

Vance, one of many Trump allies in the Senate GOP who will help shape the winner of the succession battle, put the gulf between McConnell and Trump succinctly by saying he wants a leader “who is more concerned about the American border than they are about what’s going on 6,000 miles away.”

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