Rick Scott signals interest in Senate leader race to succeed McConnell

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) is eying another shot to become Senate Republican leader after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) steps down from his position this fall as the longest-serving leader.

Scott unsuccessfully mounted a protest challenge to McConnell two years ago, but the rare vacancy atop the upper chamber offers a fresh opportunity for the former Florida governor to make his case for a shake-up.

The natural heirs to McConnell are his allies who have served in leadership: Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the former GOP whip, who already announced his run.

However, some believe the landscape has changed on Capitol Hill as the party shifts more to the right with former President Donald Trump’s influence and that the party could be better served with a leader who is less aligned with the establishment. Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) endorsed Scott for the top spot, even though the senator has not announced a run. 

“He would be a great leader of the Senate, certainly more conservative than what Mitch McConnell has been,” Steube said, speaking to Newsmax

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Scott shared the news of Steube’s endorsement on X but didn’t confirm a bid when speaking with reporters on Thursday.

“I thought when I ran before, we needed a change in leadership, so I am looking forward to a change in how we operate,” Scott said, dancing around a question in which he was asked whether he would be prepared to launch another leadership bid.

“I think the first step is we are going to call for a conference committee meeting, and the way we ought to do this — is talk about what we want to accomplish as a conference,” he added. “I think once we decide what we are going to accomplish, it will be easier to decide what our leadership should be.”

Previous GOP Senate huddles have not been productive for Scott and other members aligned with him, who have been frustrated with leadership. The group pressed McConnell following the leadership election to pursue more confrontation and aggressive negotiating tactics in talks with President Joe Biden and the Democrats ahead of the presidential election, according to sources familiar with internal party dynamics. Instead, McConnell helped broker a compromise deal with Democrats over border funding and Ukraine aid.

Scott said he wants to see major changes in how the party operates in the Senate but did not clarify whether he’d like to be the person implementing the changes.

“I want a system where we are all involved. I want to represent my state. We ought to have involvement on what is going on up here. We shouldn’t be getting bills at the last minute, without even knowing. Just as an example, I have no idea what we are even voting on today,” Scott said, referring to a letter he sent the conference in November 2022, when he announced his bid to become leader.

Scott has been a member of the “breakfast club,” a group of Senate Republicans, many of whom did not support McConnell, who regularly meet to talk about their priorities, including limiting federal spending. The group includes Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and some unofficial members who have continued to be a thorn in McConnell’s side. 

“They still regularly do breakfast and have stand-alone dinners with House members and regular conversations with Speaker Johnson,” a Scott adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. 

The Scott adviser expressed frustration with McConnell’s willingness to work with Democrats to advance Biden’s agenda.

“House Republicans are seen as the enemy — when we have a House majority, and they should be the ones taking the lead, and the Senate should be supporting them, rather than antagonizing them,” the adviser said. “Senate Republicans need to be supporting efforts by House Republicans to actually promote a Republican agenda rather than going along and helping pass the Democrat agenda.”

While Trump has not weighed in on the looming race to succeed McConnell, he has had conversations behind the scenes with Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who is running the Senate campaign arm. When asked about the leadership race Thursday during a trip to the southern border, Trump declined to say names but said there are “a lot of good choices” to succeed McConnell.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves a Republican luncheon on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington after announcing he will step down as Senate Republican leader in November. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Scott has not indicated if he has had discussions about a run with Trump again after the former president had pushed Scott to mount a challenge to McConnell in 2022, but he admitted Trump’s influence will be key in the race.

“It looks like he is going to be the nominee and the president, and I imagine it’s important that it is a person who has the ability to work with him,” Scott said on Thursday. 

As several senators reported getting phone calls from prospective candidates already, Scott said he’s focusing on his reelection campaign to the Senate, and his advisers said he is not actively campaigning his colleagues for the top spot.

“He’s not making phone calls outside of the normal phone calls he makes every day. He’s not courting people for a leadership run,” the Scott adviser said.

Florida Democrats are also weighing in on the race. Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, seen as the front-runner among the Democrats vying for a chance to challenge Scott, said the stakes are even higher after McConnell announced his decision to retire as Senate GOP leader.

“If we lose the Senate, Scott could become Senate majority leader. That’s not a world I want to live in,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a post on X.

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For now, Scott continues to advocate that the conference rally around a “mission statement,” and a group of Republicans is actively calling for a special conference meeting to discuss the future of the GOP leader.

“Let’s decide what we want to accomplish first, and then we can decide who the leadership should be,” Scott said.

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