Mitch McConnell, the veteran Republican leader in the Senate, emerged from a tense, closed-door luncheon with members of his party this week with a blunt postmortem about the November 8 midterm elections.
“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party, in leadership roles, is that they’re involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks,” McConnell told reporters. “They were frightened. And so they pulled back.”
McConnell’s comments were not just political analysis: they were intended to quash a budding internal rebellion from a group of Donald Trump-backed Republicans led by Rick Scott, the Florida senator, during a week when deep divisions within the party flared into the open.
The tensions were most acute in the Senate, after Republicans lost a seat, dashing their goal of regaining the majority in the upper chamber.
McConnell and his allies have blamed extremist candidates aligned with Trump for the losses, while those close to the former president have attacked the minority leader as a weak conservative too willing to compromise.
“The problem isn’t principally the tactics; the problem is the substance. For the past two years, the Republican establishment in Washington has capitulated on issue after issue,” Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, wrote in The Washington Post on Friday.
McConnell ultimately survived the leadership challenge from Scott by a vote of 37-10, but Republicans on Capitol Hill believe it is still too early to tell whether the healing can begin.
“When you lose people get frustrated and they lash out,” said one senior Republican aide. “I think it was really a productive week of conversations between Republicans that maybe needed to happen [but] it’s still a little to fresh,” the aide said.
Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the mood among Republicans was only somewhat brighter after they succeeded in regaining the majority in the lower chamber of Congress, but only by a very small margin that was far narrower than expected.
Kevin McCarthy won re-election as party leader in the House this week, but several Republicans have already said they will not support him for the position of Speaker in a vote due in early January, and he can afford few defections. “I’ve seen enough. I cannot vote for Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker. I do not believe he will ever get to 218 votes, and I refuse to assist him in his effort to get those votes,” Andy Biggs, a GOP lawmaker from Arizona, tweeted on Friday.
The reckoning on Capitol Hill has unfolded just as Trump was on Tuesday launching his third bid for the White House in 2024 from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, exacerbating the split and angst within the party. Many Republican lawmakers have for months wanted Trump to fade into the background and are upset with him for spoiling the midterm elections. They would like to see alternative candidates emerge in the contest for the 2024 nomination.
“The job for Republicans now is to make sure the party brand makes it easier for them to win the White House in two years: they just have to stop being crazy,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist at EFB Advocacy.
He worried that the internal squabbles could further jeopardise Republican chances of winning back a Senate seat in Georgia in a special election set for early December pitting incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock against Herschel Walker, the former American football star endorsed by Trump. “It’s unseemly, having Republicans attack other Republicans: it just makes the Democrats happy,” Feehery said.
But Trump allies in Congress are still powerful and vocal. Elise Stefanik, the Republican conference chair in the House, has already endorsed the former president, while Republicans on the oversight committee immediately indicated that they intend to hasten their investigation of Hunter Biden’s business ventures. President Joe Biden’s son has been a frequent target and obsession of Trump’s.
“I think the American people care about whether or not their leaders are compromised, whether or not they have been involved in shady business deals that have enriched themselves and their family members,” said James Comer, the top Republican on the House oversight committee, told Fox News on Thursday.
That focus has made some Republicans nervous, however. “The top priority is to deal with inflation and the cost of living . . . What I don’t want to see is what we saw in the Trump administration where Democrats went after the president and the administration incessantly,” Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who unseated Sean Patrick Maloney, a senior Democrat, in last week’s election, told CNN.
Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator in Georgia, wrote on Twitter: “There is a segment of the right that just wants to fling poo at the left. They don’t need a majority and don’t need to grow a majority. They just have to fling poo. For the rest of America, though, it’d be nice to have conservatives who want to govern.”
In Arizona, Republican strategist Barrett Marson said his party’s candidates, who were mostly Trump-backed election deniers in crucial governor’s and Senate races, turned what should have been 10 point advantages into defeats.
“Election results show that voters want to move on,” Marson said. “What candidates have to start talking about is the future, what Republican policies will do to make their lives easier, to battle crime, to secure the border.”