". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Mitch McConnell Steps Down as Longest-Running Senate GOP Leader

February 29, 2024

Republicans have expressed gratitude, bitterness, and optimism after Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he will step down as leader of the Senate Republicans this November after a record-breaking tenure that spanned 18 years and thoroughly reshaped the federal judiciary.

“To serve Kentucky in the Senate has been the honor of my life. To lead my Republican colleagues has been my highest privilege. But one of life’s underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter,” said McConnell on Wednesday, his voice sometimes choking with emotion. “So, I stand before you today … to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.”

McConnell plans to carry out leadership duties until November, when senators will elect a new leader. He said he plans to serve out the remainder of his seventh Senate term, which ends in 2027. “I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics, and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they’ve become accustomed,” he quipped.

McConnell, who entered the Senate in 1984, referred to his advancing age as a motivating factor. “I turned 82 last week. The end of my contributions are closer than I prefer. Father Time remains undefeated. I’m no longer the young man sitting in the back hoping colleagues remember my name,” said McConnell. He suffered a concussion last March from a fall that kept him from returning to the Senate for weeks. After the accident, McConnell seized up multiple times in public.

“It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” he said.

McConnell will end his time as Senate Minority Leader after 18 years as the longest-serving Senate leader in history, beating Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, who served as Senate Democratic leader 1961-1977. Many gracious commentators cited McConnell’s longevity and his role in confirming judges to the federal judiciary in their comments.

“I congratulate Senator McConnell on a record-long tenure as leader,” Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) told “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” hours after the announcement. “But whatever time remains, I hope he’ll choose to spend that time fighting to secure America’s borders and unifying the Senate Republican Conference around Republican priorities.” 

McConnell’s counterpart, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.), noted how the senator overcame “humble beginnings overcoming polio to become one of the most consequential Senate leaders in history. … No Member of Congress has played a greater role in reshaping the federal judiciary than Mitch.” He also referred to McConnell’s “historic contributions” before concluding, “His legacy will endure for generations.”

“Mitch McConnell will leave a legacy of a judiciary tethered to the Constitution because of his laser focus during the Trump administration on confirming constitutionalists to the federal bench,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told The Washington Stand.

McConnell partnered with President Donald Trump to confirm 231 lifetime federal judicial appointments: three Supreme Court justices, 54 Circuit Court justices, and 174 District Court justices.

The senator often delighted in turning his opponents’ rules against them in the process. In a June 1992 speech, then-Senator Biden suggested, if a Supreme Court nominee stepped down, the president should “not — and not — name a nominee until after the November election is completed” and, if he does, “the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over.” McConnell invoked “The Biden Rule” to hold up a vote on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to take constitutionalist Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. McConnell held the Supreme Court vacancy open for 416 days, from Justice Scalia’s death on February 16, 2016 until the Senate confirmed his successor, Justice Neil Gorsuch, the following April 7. Doing so, McConell also extended the “nuclear option” — enacted by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2013, which barred the minority from filibustering nearly all judicial appointees — to Supreme Court justices.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy left the court ahead of the 2020 election, McConnell quickly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett in his place. In 2020, McConnell called remaking the judiciary “the most consequential thing we’ve done in the last four years” and referred to Justice Barrett’s confirmation as the “capstone” to his career.

McConnell “transformed the federal judiciary and led to the landmark Dobbs decision, in which Americans were given their voice back in the fight to protect unborn children and their mothers after being muzzled for decades. He will go down in history for his role in this pivotal victory in the human rights battle of our time, the right to life,” said SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser. “For this and his lifetime of pro-life leadership, we are immensely grateful.”

McConnell broke into politics in 1976, supporting President Gerald Ford against a primary challenge from insurgent former California Governor Ronald Reagan. McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984 and captured the post of Senate Minority Leader in 2006. Much of his time at the top of the Senate has been marked by controversy. His famously contentious relationship with President Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive 2024 presidential nominee, as well as his dedication to promoting Ukraine funding and an older way of running the legislative body increasingly put him at odds with conservative members of his own party.

Although McConnell voted against impeaching Donald Trump twice, he said he held the president “practically and morally responsible” for the January 6 riot. He regularly held omnibus spending bills until the last minute, giving members little time to digest, much less properly assess, the legislation they voted on. He diverted campaign funds away from conservative Senate hopefuls, including Blake Masters of Arizona and Kelly Tshibaka of Alaska, who refused to take a personal loyalty oath to support him as Senate leader. McConnell, who has said funding Ukraine ranks as his highest priority, gave up leverage against the Biden administration’s desire for a sweeping foreign aid package for greater border security.

President Joe Biden said he felt “sorry to hear he’s stepping down” on Wednesday. “I trusted him. We had a great relationship. We fought like Hell. But he never, never, never misrepresented anything.”

In recent days, McConnell had reportedly grappled with endorsing President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. Trump’s campaign manager Chris LaCivita has been negotiating the potential announcement with McConnell aide Josh Holmes.

Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) attempted to dislodge McConnell from his post after the most recent midterms. McConell’s announcement gives Republicans “an opportunity to refocus our efforts on solving the significant challenges facing our country and actually reflect the aspirations of voters,” said Scott.

McConnell may be losing support in his home state. When Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, who would win in a hypothetical election between McConnell and Governor Andy Beshear (D), Paul replied, “Beshear.”

Numerous conservatives expressed their pleasure at McConnell’s departure. “Good, it’s time,” said Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “This is a good decision and will be a chance to start fresh.” Hawley later clarified he wanted the next Senate leader to put mainstream American concerns and the good of “this nation ahead of defense contractors, corporate interests, and big money donors.” The House Freedom Caucus posted a caustic farewell, “Our thoughts are with our Democrat colleagues in the Senate on the retirement of their Co-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (D-Ukraine).”

McConnell exits Senate leadership with the lowest favorability rating, and the highest unfavorable ratings, of any major U.S. political leader, according to an average maintained by Real Clear Politics. McConnell also retires as the seventh wealthiest member of the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell’s personal net worth doubled in 10 years, soaring from $17 million in 2018 to $34.14 million in 2018. The median net worth of a U.S. senator is $1.7 million, according to campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets.

Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are said to be weighing a campaign to succeed McConnell. When asked if he might throw his hat in the ring, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) gave a non-denial to The Hill on NewsNation Wednesday.

In his farewell remarks, McConnell cited the death of his wife’s younger sister, Angela Chao, in a car accident earlier this month in his decision to step down from leadership, reflecting, “Perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you of your own life’s journey to prioritize the impact of the world that we will all inevitably leave behind.”

Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.