WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s health woes risk spilling into the 2024 race, where Republicans face new questions about whether their top tactician and fundraising magnet is up to the task of reclaiming the majority.
The 81-year-old, who has battled his party’s growing populist wing, set out this year to block the type of far-right candidates backed by former President Donald Trump who, he says, cost Republicans the Senate in 2022.
McConnell’s latest episode — a second public freeze in as many months — comes as he needs to wrestle once again with potentially messy Senate primaries in key states such as Ohio, Nevada, Arizona and West Virginia.
The conservative National Review called in an editorial this week for McConnell to step down, saying he has “noticeably aged” in recent months and the two recent incidents affect “his ability to function as the leading representative of his caucus.”
A McConnell ally said the leader has maintained his normal political schedule including phone calls, meetings and fundraisers since returning to work April 17 from a concussion that sidelined him for weeks. On Thursday alone, he made fundraising calls that brought in more than $150,000, a person familiar with McConnell’s efforts said.
Others point to a fundraiser McConnell attended just hours after his latest episode as evidence that he’s up to the job.
“That’s the reason for the immense respect our donors have for the leader, which is a key driver for our success,” Steven Law, president and CEO of Senate Leadership Fund super-PAC allied with McConnell that raised $289 million in the 2022 election, said in a statement.
But McConnell’s importance to the party machine, coupled with his visibly increased frailty, begs the question: Can the party’s quarterback maintain through next November the type of grueling campaign pace that has been his hallmark for nearly two decades?
Democrats now control the Senate, 51-49, but they must defend eight competitive seats, including in Republican-heavy West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. None of the GOP-held seats on the ballot next year are currently considered competitive.
“Even if he takes a reduced role in the races, the map is very good for Republicans,” Republican strategist Lisa Camooso Miller said.
But the GOP can’t afford to take their advantage for granted in what could be a volatile election year punctuated by a seesawing economy and Trump’s legal woes ahead of an expected rematch against President Joe Biden.
The spotlight, whether McConnell steps aside or not, now increases on others, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines and Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican.
McConnell is “very important to the process but he has a team around doing an incredible amount of work,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist who has advised Senate and House GOP leaders.
Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor and the chief executive officer of Canary Drilling Services, acknowledged that a McConnell retirement would create a void in Republican politics.
He called the Kentuckian a “force of nature” in building and protecting Senate majorities. But he doesn’t think fundraising would suffer.
“It’s a vacuum that Senator Thune and the current leadership at SLF are more than capable of filling,” Eberhart said.
Politics, however, isn’t just about raising money — it’s knowing how to spend it.
McConnell has amassed his power by directing critical funds to the most pivotal races and keeping his promises to GOP challengers. And he still enjoys a high level of loyalty among Senate Republicans despite broader fractures in the party.
The party has scored some significant early recruitment wins with more expected in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin within weeks. But looming primary contests could change the direction of the contest in other states to favor Democrats.
“There are still some holes in the roster,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a non-partisan election newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, personally recruited by McConnell, is running for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But Justice faces a primary contest against Rep. Alex Mooney, a favorite of conservatives, although Justice leads strongly in polls.
In Montana, GOP establishment favorite Tim Sheehy could face a tough challenge from Rep. Matt Rosendale, a conservative who lost in 2018 to incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester.
Republicans are also challenged in Arizona. Kari Lake, who refused to concede her loss in the state’s 2022 gubernatorial race, could enter the race, as could 2022 Senate nominee Blake Masters.
Polls suggest Lake could easily win the GOP primary, but she trails Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego in polls in the race. Incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who hasn’t announced her plans, could run in a complicated three-way race.
In Ohio, the party is staying out of a GOP primary to take on Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown that so far includes three candidates, including political newcomer Bernie Moreno and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, known statewide for losing an anti-abortion ballot initiative.
And in Nevada, Sam Brown, Republicans’ top recruit, faces a crowded field that includes Jim Marchant, a former Nevada state lawmaker and 2020 election denier, against first-term Democrat Jacky Rosen..
(Bill Allison contributed to this report.)