Senate Republicans found themselves shaken and disoriented Thursday after finding out their leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was in the hospital after tripping at a private event, raising questions about his health and future leadership of the GOP conference.
McConnell, who in January became the longest serving party leader in Senate history, has led the Senate GOP conference since 2005 and has helped guide his colleagues through some of the biggest moments in recent history — the 2008 financial collapse, the near default of the U.S. government in 2011, the fiscal cliff of 2012, the two impeachment trials of former President Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
McConnell fell after attending a private dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Washington and was taken to the hospital by an ambulance and is being treated for a concussion.
The 81-year-old Kentucky senator’s sudden absence came only a day after he helped Republicans achieve a big political victory by stampeding Democrats into voting to block a District of Columbia crime bill. And it left some GOP senators feeling unsettled and worried about the future.
“I am a huge fan of Mitch McConnell. I think he has the ability to lead a very diverse group of individuals in a way that is masterful,” said one GOP senator who requested anonymity to discuss the impact of McConnell’s injury on the Senate GOP conference.
“I think, who would be our next leader and what kind of leader would that person be?” the senator added. “Yeah, I do worry about that.”
“He’s always thinking ahead in terms of initiatives. He’s thinking about how the players on his team can fit. He’s got a knack for that that I don’t think you find in many others,” the lawmaker said.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), former Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) are viewed as McConnell’s three most likely successors.
But there hasn’t been any serious discussion of a future Senate GOP leadership race among Republican senators themselves because McConnell has a secure grip on the job and hasn’t dropped any hint about planning to retire.
He easily defeated former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.) by a lopsided vote of 37 to 10 when Scott tried to capitalize on Republican disappointment over the 2022 midterm election by challenging McConnell for the top job.
Scott, who has feuded with McConnell over party strategy since that race, tweeted on Thursday that he and his wife are keeping the leader and his family “in our prayers” and wished him “a speedy recovery.”
Senators were in the dark
The news that broke Wednesday night that McConnell had been rushed to the hospital after tripping and falling at a dinner event left Republican senators scrambling the next morning for more information about the severity of his injuries.
Speculation veered in all different directions, and the lack of details from McConnell’s office had lawmakers wondering about how bad the situation was.
McConnell’s top deputies, Thune and Cornyn, didn’t get a chance to talk to their leader before being pressed for details by reporters in the Capitol’s hallways.
Thune, looking somber Thursday morning, only said: “Don’t know a lot yet.”
Thune rushed straight to the floor before taking any other questions to be sure he first addressed his Senate colleagues, telling them that his “thoughts and prayers are with Leader McConnell” as well as “with his family” and “with his team.”
Cornyn was also in the dark.
“I understand that he’s resting up, but I don’t have any details,” he said.
McConnell’s office disclosed at lunchtime Thursday that he was being treated for a concussion and would remain in the hospital for a few days of observation and treatment.
What exactly happened
As the day went on, a few other details leaked out about the accident.
McConnell was at the Waldorf earlier in the evening to attend a reception for the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC that he is affiliated with and that played a major role in the last election by spending $290 million.
The reception was a thank-you event for the super PAC’s supporters, and several GOP senators attended.
“I think it was more of a thank you to the people that had helped with the fund in the last election cycle,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “It was a pretty good showing of Republican colleagues. I don’t know how many showed up, but it seemed like there was a lot of us.”
McConnell later attended a small, private dinner that a person familiar described as “adjacent” to the reception. He tripped and fell after that dinner.
McConnell’s significant impact
A second Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic said McConnell’s hospitalization raises questions about the future leadership of the Senate GOP conference but emphasized, “It’s not time to be talking about [it].”
“My thoughts and prayers are with Elaine and Mitch, and I hope it’s not too serious,” the senator said, referring to McConnell’s wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“I haven’t found anything good about getting old,” the senator quipped.
McConnell has been such a major political force in Republican politics for so long that his GOP colleagues have come to rely on his ability to pump huge sums of money into Senate battleground states and to insulate them from the turbulence in conservative politics that has roiled the House GOP conference.
He leadership is especially valued by mainstream and moderate Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) — one of McConnell’s closest friends in the Senate — because he gives them space to work with Democratic colleagues and practice the style of Republican politics they see as best suited to their home states.
Colleagues also value McConnell’s ability to get their party out of tough political situations.
One example came in the fall of 2021, when he rounded up his leadership team and other allies to provide the 11 GOP votes needed to pave the way for Democrats to pass legislation to raise the debt limit.
McConnell took enormous heat from Trump and other critics for the vote, but it took the danger of a federal default off the table.
And McConnell has historically shown a willingness to inject himself in Senate Republican primary politics to pave the way for candidates he views as the most electable in a general election — an approach he adopted after Republicans fumbled away their chances to win seats in Delaware, Nevada, Missouri and Indiana in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Even senators who voted to oust him from his leadership job in November admit their respect and admiration for his toughness in battle.
“He’s a tough old crow. My money’s on him,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).