Senate Republicans are already off to a shaky start in a cycle where retaking control of the upper chamber should be a gimme. Republicans need to flip just two seats in 2024 (or one if they win the White House), and Democrats will defend more than a handful of potentially competitive seats in both swing and red states—including West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Democrats' two best pickup opportunities next year are in the GOP strongholds of Florida and Texas.
But what if, in an unexpected twist, Republicans lost a seat before the voting even began? It's a question one Republican senator most definitely doesn't want to entertain.
“I’m fine," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Capitol Hill reporters in July, after his first episode of suddenly freezing up during a press conference. McConnell had initially been led away from reporters, but he returned shortly thereafter to downplay any nagging questions about his health.
But after the 81-year-old McConnell glitched again Wednesday in Kentucky at another press conference, he did not immediately reappear to demonstrate his vigor. Instead, a spokesperson later said McConnell "feels fine,” explaining that he was "momentarily lightheaded." McConnell allies and the Capitol physician offered follow-up reassurances.
“Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery," Dr. Brian Monahan said, referring to a fall in the spring that sidelined McConnell for over a month.
But the statements from GOP senators sounded eerily similar to those they produced after the initial concussion. In March, following a call with McConnell, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said, "He sounded like Mitch." And following McConnell’s freeze-up this week, a spokesperson for Thune said that “the Leader sounded like his usual self."
A spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, reiterated this week that "the Leader sounds like himself and is feeling fine."
There’s that word again, making one wonder if this is more like the use of “fine" by the iconic small dog surrounded by flames?
The reality is, Senate Republicans are beginning to talk among themselves. Politico reports a handful of them are pondering whether to force a leadership discussion within the caucus by means of a special conference meeting, which takes the agreement of just five senators.
But if McConnell, who was first elected senator in the 1980s, isn't fit to lead the conference, is he fit to serve at all? His constituents had thoughts about that question earlier this month at Kentucky’s annual Fancy Farm Political Picnic.
"I appreciate some of the things he's done in his career, but we need somebody new," John Shindlebower, who attended to support the GOP gubernatorial candidate, told NPR. "So yeah, I'm ready for him to ride off in the sunset."
Democratic voter Gerald Morris said, "You know, after a while, you have to change tires on the car after 40,000. They've been in there 40 years. So, you know, it's time for a change."
Similar questions about mental fitness have dogged Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, 90, whose physical and cognitive decline since enduring a severe case of shingles earlier this year is unmistakable.
But Feinstein is a Democratic senator in a blue state led by a Democratic governor. McConnell, by contrast, is in a red state currently governed by a Democrat, Gov. Andy Beshear. McConnell's recurring medical episodes beg the question of whether Beshear might appoint a Democrat to serve out McConnell’s term until 2027 if he vacated the seat. Kentucky's governors were empowered with the sole discretion of filling vacancies for most of its history until 2021, when the state's Republican-led legislature, at the urging of McConnell, changed the process.
However, the governor must now appoint someone from the departing senator’s state party, which provides the governor with three replacement options.
But based on recent comments following McConnell's first episode, Beshear is playing his cards close to his vest. Asked directly by Politico’s Jonathan Martin what he planned to do in the event of a Senate opening in Kentucky, Beshear demurred. “I mean, it’s not vacant,” he said. “I’ve talked to his people, he’s doing alright. He’s going to serve out his term.”
Martin asked again.
“There’s not going to be a vacancy,” Beshear said. “That would be total speculation.”
Given the governor's noncommittal responses, it's anyone's guess as to what Beshear might do and what case he thinks he can make in court to potentially flout the law.
But one thing is for sure, Republicans needing to pick up not just two seats but three next year to retake the Senate would be a much taller order to fill.
The far-right justices on Wisconsin's Supreme Court just can't handle the fact that liberals now have the majority for the first time in 15 years, so they're in the throes of an ongoing meltdown—and their tears are delicious. On this week's episode of "The Downballot," co-hosts David Nir and David Beard drink up all the schadenfreude they can handle as they puncture conservative claims that their progressive colleagues are "partisan hacks" (try looking in the mirror) or are breaking the law (try reading the state constitution). Elections do indeed have consequences!