Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose ability to kill legislation is legendary, has proudly adopted the term “Grim Reaper” as a moniker. Similarly, his ruthlessness when it comes to winning elections and confirming judges — and using judges to win elections, like when he blocked Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination — cemented McConnell, R-Ky., as the most important conservative politician of the past decade not named Donald Trump. He also has a reputation for making Republican senators fall in line.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose ability to kill legislation is legendary, has proudly adopted the term “Grim Reaper” as a moniker.
But the decision of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to introduce legislation Tuesday that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy and the decision of Sen. Marc Rubio of Florida the next day to join him shows that Republicans, to borrow from Blue Öyster Cult, don’t fear the reaper anymore. If anything, Republicans are showing themselves to be more than willing to oppose the man who has led Republicans for almost 16 years.
McConnell quickly doused the idea of a national abortion ban, saying the issue should be left to the states, which was the same position Graham held a few weeks ago, when he said that “states should decide the issue of abortion.” McConnell’s opposition to Graham’s idea doesn’t owe to any doctrinaire belief in federalism. McConnell, whose sense of discipline contributed to Trump’s election as president and a 6-3 Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, recognizes that the bill would be political suicide.
Graham’s legislation couldn’t have come at a worse time for Republicans. The midterms are less than two months away, and Democrats have been hammering Republicans on the issue since the Supreme Court replaced Roe v. Wade with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Anger at the Dobbs decision partly explains why Democrats won a special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District and contributed to Mary Peltola’s becoming the first Democrat to represent Alaska in almost 50 years.
But Graham and Rubio’s decision to put abortion into the midterm mix isn’t the only example of Republican senators’ ignoring the wishes of the longest-serving Republican leader. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been at odds with McConnell much of the campaign season. Rather than focus on fundraising and on recruiting candidates, Scott has sought to use the committee as his personal self-promotion platform, rolling out a policy plan this year that says “all Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount.” McConnell immediately quashed that and said such an idea “raises taxes on half the American people,” which Scott later backed away from.
The GOP hopes to flip the Senate, but Scott’s stewardship of the NRSC has given way to a deluge of stories about financial mismanagement. Still, McConnell hasn’t been able to bring Scott in line. Scott has pushed back, saying they have a “strategic disagreement.” McConnell has said poor candidate quality has compromised Republicans’ ability to win back the Senate.
McConnell appears to be a man who can no longer control the most extreme factions of his conference. He was perhaps the most prominent member of the conservative elite who enabled Trumpism, because he saw it as an avenue to pass tax cuts and confirm judges, but he himself has never been MAGA. Now, he’s starting to pay the price for not having stood up to Trump earlier.
His grip began to loosen when Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas began their cockamamie stunt to object to the 2020 election results. That led the base of the GOP to focus more on the “big lie” about the election than on holding two Senate seats in Georgia. Then, after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, McConnell reportedly wanted an overwhelming bipartisan refutation of Trumpism, going so far as to say, “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is.”
Of course, when it came time to actually vote to convict Trump, McConnell saw that his conference lacked the stomach for it, and as a result, he backed down. He expressed his fury at Trump once the impeachment trial was over and Trump was acquitted. Trump openly blasted him as “Old Crow,” a moniker McConnell has tried to embrace with less success than the other insults hurled at him.
McConnell isn’t the only member of the conservative elite who’s lost control of the institutions he’s supposed to lead.
Although the Trump years helped foster the image of McConnell as the cutthroat master of the Senate who knows how to “own the libs,” he might now rue the fact that he didn’t stop the Trump train. Not because he hates what Trumpism stands for but because now a sizable faction of Republican senators can now openly defy him knowing the base has their backs.
As my friend Charles Pierce of Esquire noted on Twitter, McConnell isn’t the only member of the conservative elite who’s lost control of the institutions he’s supposed to lead: Chief Justice John Roberts has found himself unable to tame an even more conservative faction of the Supreme Court, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has turned himself into a toady not just for Trump, but also for Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Matt Gaetz of Florida. By enabling Trump, McConnell, the grim reaper, might have helped keep alive a political force he can’t cut down.