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McConnell faces challenge from Scott as GOP senators regroup

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans were meeting behind closed doors Wednesday as Republican leader Mitch McConnell faced a striking challenge to his leadership, a renegade bid by the GOP party’s campaign chief Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to oust him after the midterm elections.

Retreating to the Old Senate Chamber at the Capitol, a historical site mostly visited by tourists but occasionally used by senators for their most serious of private discussions, Republicans are engaging after a very public spillover of infighting following a disappointing performance in last week’s elections that kept Senate control with Democrats.

A confident McConnell appeared certain he will easily swat back the challenge from Scott, who is largely blamed by his colleagues for the GOP failures. No more than 10 Republican senators, among some of the most conservative figures and those aligned with former President Donald Trump, are expected to join in the revolt.

“I think the outcome is pretty clear,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I want to repeat again: I have the votes; I will be elected. The only issue is whether we do it sooner or later.”

The unrest in the Senate is similar to the uproar among Republicans in the House in the aftermath of the midterm elections that left the party split over Trump’s hold on the party. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy won the nomination from colleagues to run for House speaker, with Republicans on the cusp of seizing the House majority, but he faces stiff opposition from a core group of right-flank Republicans unconvinced of his leadership.

On Wednesday, the senators planned to first consider a motion by a Scott ally, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to delay the leadership votes until after the Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia between Republican Herschel Walker and incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock that will determine the final makeup of the Senate. Walker ius eligible to vote in the leadership election but wasn’t expected to be present.

There are 49 GOP senators expected to vote on Wednesday, including newly elected senators who are in town this week but not yet sworn into office and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is eligible even though her race against Republican Kelly Tshibaka hasn’t been called yet.

The announcement by Scott, who was urged to challenge McConnell by Trump, escalated a long-simmering feud between Scott, who led the Senate Republican’s campaign arm this year, and McConnell over the party’s approach to try to reclaim the Senate majority.

“If you simply want to stick with the status quo, don’t vote for me,” Scott said in a letter to Senate Republicans offering himself as a protest vote against McConnell.

Restive conservatives in the chamber have lashed out at McConnell’s handling of the election, as well as his iron grip over the Senate Republican caucus.

A delay could give leverage to Trump-aligned conservatives who are hoping their clout will grow after the outcome of races in Georgia and Alaska

Yet it appears unlikely that their numbers could grow enough to put McConnell’s job in jeopardy, given his deep support within the conference. And Trump’s opposition is hardly new, as he has been pushing for the party to dump McConnell ever since the Senate leader gave a scathing speech blaming the former president for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Still, it represents an unusual direct challenge to McConnell’s authority. If he wins the GOP leadership post, he would become the longest-serving Senate leader in history when the new Congress convenes in the new year.

Scott and McConnell traded what colleagues said were “candid” and “lively” barbs during a lengthy private GOP senators lunch Tuesday that dragged for several hours. They sparred over the midterms, the quality of the GOP candidates who ran and their differences over fundraising.

During the luncheon, some 20 senators made their individual cases for the two men. Some members directly challenged Scott in McConnell’s defense, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who questioned the Florida senator’s management of the campaign arm, according to a person familiar with the meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it.

Among the many reasons Scott listed for mounting a challenge is that Republicans had compromised too much with Democrats in the last Congress — producing bills that President Joe Biden has counted as successes and that Democrats ran on in the 2022 election.

The feud between Scott and McConnell has been percolating for months and reached a boil as election results trickled in showing there would be no Republican Senate wave, as Scott predicted, according to senior Republican strategists who were not authorized to discuss internal issues by name and insisted on anonymity.

The feuding started not long after Scott took over the party committee in late 2020, which many in the party viewed as an effort to build his national political profile and donor network ahead of a potential presidential bid in 2024. Some were irked by promotional materials from the committee that were heavy on Scott’s own biography, while focusing less on the candidates who are up for election.

Then came Scott’s release of an 11-point plan early this year, which called for a modest tax increase for many of the lowest-paid Americans, while opening the door for cutting Social Security and Medicare, which McConnell swiftly repudiated even as he declined to offer an agenda of his own.

The feud was driven in part by the fraying trust in Scott’s leadership, as well as poor finances of the committee, which was $20 million in debt, according to a senior Republican consultant.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms.

Lisa Mascaro, Brian Slodysko And Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press