CPAC 2024: JD Vance tells McConnell to ‘look in the mirror’ and accept ‘failure’

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) “job has been a failure,” referencing his push to provide additional security funding to Ukraine rather than focusing on domestic issues.

“If you’re Mitch McConnell and you’re a senator from Kentucky and you care more about the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine and not the fact that your own citizens are getting murdered by fentanyl brought in by cartels and that’s lower life expectancy, you need to look in the mirror and accept that your job has been a failure,” Vance said at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday as the audience erupted in applause.

Vance has been one of several outspoken senators who have been openly criticizing McConnell’s leadership. In 2022, McConnell easily beat Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) in the first challenge to his leadership in 15 years amid infighting over the party’s disappointing performance in the midterm elections. However, the dissatisfaction with McConnell’s leadership among some party members is continuing. 

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“The way that these guys obsessively focus on the problems of Ukraine to the exclusion of everything else that’s going on in this country — I’ve seen colleagues of mine, Republican colleagues, who are much more invested on what’s going on 6,000 miles away than they are in their own country,” Vance said. 

Vance has been among one of former President Donald Trump’s high-profile allies in the Senate and has pushed back against providing Ukraine with additional foreign aid, while McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has been determined to secure more money for Ukraine even though it put him on a collision course with many Republican members of his conference and Trump, the party’s likely 2024 nominee.

A bill that includes $60 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine recently passed in the Senate after 22 Republicans joined the majority of Senate Democrats in supporting the legislation. The funding remains in limbo after House Republicans loyal to Trump question whether the United States should continue sending resources.

On the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vance reflected on his recent trip to the Munich Security Conference, in which he argued that the funding bill stuck in Congress wouldn’t “fundamentally change the reality” in the war.

“People said, ‘You’re on an island,’ and I said, ‘I’m on an island maybe in Munich, but I’m not on an island in the United States of America. The majority of the American people actually agree with my viewpoint,’” Vance said to cheers and applause.

This year’s conference, which is doubling as a coronation of the former president, has also served as an audition of sorts to test out potential running mates. Vance has been floated as a potential vice presidential pick, but the freshman senator did not mention that topic during the discussion at the conference. 

“Certainly if the president asked, I would have to think about it,” Vance recently said while stumping for Trump in New Hampshire, adding that the “best place for me” is to remain in the Senate. 

Vance’s scathing criticism of the Senate’s Republican leader at a conference that used to be regarded as the “largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world” comes as the gathering has transformed into an event that exclusively features allies of the former president and right-wing media personalities that flatter him. 

Vance and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) were the only two U.S. senators who spoke before the conference this year. House GOP Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) is the only member of Republican congressional leadership who addressed the crowd.

The conference has come a long way from previous years when congressional leaders were prominently featured as headliners at the event. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum gave marquee speeches as they battled for the Republican nomination. In 2014, McConnell walked onstage holding a rifle over his head. In 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke at the conference. 

But, at this year’s CPAC, the stage does not include Republicans who have been critical of the former president, though organizers say former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is still competing for the GOP nomination, was invited.

“If Nikki Haley ever showed her face here, she’d be thrown out,” said Lindsey Smith, a Republican voter and recent college graduate who traveled to the conference from West Virginia. “The McConnells and Romneys of the party aren’t welcome here either. We don’t need any more RINOs,” she added with a laugh, referencing “Republicans in name only.”

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