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McConnell could face leadership challenger as conservatives steam

Senate Republican leaders’ decision to push forward with leadership elections on Wednesday despite conservative calls for delay may spark a protest challenger to Mitch McConnell.

The Senate GOP is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to hash out the midterm debacle that failed to net them a single Democratic-controlled seat. And if McConnell’s leadership team presses forward with a leadership election this week, as expected, it’s likely to earn the Kentuckian at least a handful of no votes for his first time in 15 years as GOP conference leader.

“If leadership refuses to delay the election, if leadership tries to ram through an election tomorrow morning, I think it is extremely likely it will be a contested election,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in an interview. “That you will see one or more senators run against Mitch McConnell.”

The most likely candidate is Florida’s Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign committee. Scott is declining to rule out a leadership challenge behind the scenes, according to senators and aides — after laying plans for one that were scrapped in the wake of the disappointing midterm. McConnell and Scott have disagreed about campaign strategy for months, with tactical and strategic divides only increasing in the days following the election.

Scott’s office declined to comment. Cruz said “that’s a decision that Rick’s going to have to make.”

The majority of Republican senators want to move forward with leadership elections, but a not-insignificant number want to delay them until the Alaska and Georgia races are decided. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) says she will support McConnell even as she joins those in asking for a delay.

Others, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), say they want new leadership: “I’m not gonna vote for Senator McConnell. I’ve made that abundantly clear.”

To register that no vote, dissenters may need an alternative candidate like Scott or Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is also weighing a run for a leadership post. Another wild card is the group of newly elected GOP senators, who were in town on Tuesday for orientation: Eric Schmitt of Missouri, J.D. Vance of Ohio, Katie Britt of Alabama, Ted Budd of North Carolina and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.

McConnell said this week that “of course” he has the votes to win a leadership election, which will make him the longest-serving party leader in Senate history during the next Congress. And even though he faces unrest in the caucus, no one is predicting he might lose, or that it even would be particularly close.

“It’d probably be smart to make sure we had everybody here. And we don’t know whether Herschel Walker is gonna be here or not,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who supports McConnell. “Is it going to make any difference whether Sen. McConnell will be the leader or not the leader? Probably not.”

The GOP conference chair, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, said things are moving ahead on schedule. He’s not the only McConnell ally who pointed out that a delay won’t change the result.

“There’s nothing that’s going to change as a result of delaying. I mean, we’ve done this before — we did it two years ago. We had both Georgia seats two years ago. They weren’t decided until January. The elections always occur at the same time,” said Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

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