Why Is Mitch McConnell is Stepping Down? And How This Will Impact the GOP?

“His legacy will be a dark one,” says one expert.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is finally ending his history-making tenure: On Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican announced plans to step down from the helm of the Republican Conference in November, marking the end of his stint as the longest-serving leader in Senate history.

McConnell, who turned 82 this month, even marveled at his own career, which first began when he was first elected to the Senate 40 years ago. “I have the honor of representing Kentucky and the Senate longer than anyone else in our state’s history,” he said on the Senate floor. “I just never could have imagined — never could have imagined that happening when I arrived here in 1984 at 42,” he said.

But don’t expect him to leave his Senate post imminently: The Kentucky Republican said he plans to serve out the rest of his term, which ends in January 2027. But three GOP lawmakers are already jockeying to replace him — more on that below, plus what his departure means for the party at large.

What did Mitch McConnell say?

McConnell made his announcement in a Senate floor speech on Wednesday.

“One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter, so I stand before you today, Mr. President, and my colleagues, to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate,” McConnell said.

The Kentucky leader has served as GOP leader since 2007, and political strategist Larry Gerston says his departure marks the end of an era. “It’s the last vestige of the Reagan wing of the Republican party exiting the Congressional power structure,” he tells Katie Couric Media.

Why is McConnell retiring?

There are several factors at work when it comes to why McConnell is stepping down, but health issues likely played a role for the 82-year-old. Last March, he sustained a concussion and fractured a rib after taking a nasty fall at a private dinner at a Washington hotel. Then, in July, he appeared to suffer some sort of medical episode during the middle of a news conference, whenhe froze mid-sentence for nearly 20 seconds.He had a similar moment while making a public appearance in Kentucky.

In announcing his decision, McConnell also stated that the death of his sister-in-law, Angela Chao, in a car accident had taken a toll on his family and caused him to reevaluate his career.

“When you lose a loved one, particularly at a young age, there’s a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process. Perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you of your own life’s journey to prioritize the impact of the world that we will all inevitably leave behind,” he said, pointing to his recent birthday. “I turned 82 last week. The end of my contributions are closer than I’d prefer.”

Some say his departure could also have to do with former president Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.

“McConnell’s age and health made it inevitable that this would be his last year as leader,” Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade ambassador, tells us. “But certainly, the overall direction of the Republican Party made his job much more difficult. McConnell detests Trump, but the Republicans are increasingly a Trumpist party, and McConnell would have faced a serious challenge if he tried to stay in power.“

Who will replace Mitch McConnell?

As McConnell noted in his announcement, an election to replace him as leader will take place in November and his successor won’t take charge until January 2025.

But the race for his job is already on, and all eyes are currently on the “three Johns”: Senate Minority Whip John Thune, of South Dakota; the No. 3 Republican Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming; and former GOP Whip Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas.

“Of those three, Thune seems most likely to emerge, if someone from McConnell’s team can succeed,” says Shapiro, who’s the author ofThe Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.“But the Republican caucus has been increasingly restless under McConnell’s leadership — the MAGA wing of the caucus has become much stronger, so at least one candidate reflecting their views is likely to compete as well.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Oct. 9, 1988 (Photo by Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

How are Republicans responding?

McConnell revealed his plans to a small group of allies before he made his decision public, and some of them spoke up to thank the Kentucky lawmaker for his decades-long service.

“I just want to very briefly recognize my good friend, the Republican leader, for his extraordinary service not only to our caucus but more importantly to the Senate as an institution and our country,” GOP Sen. Susan Collins said, following his announcement.

Trump’s allies are certainly pleased to see him go, while Senate Republicans like Hawley hope his departure will give them a “fresh start” after weeks of bitter infighting over providing military aid to Ukraine and reforming the nation’s border security and immigration laws.

But some onlookers aren’t so optimistic. Gerston expects an “unpleasant struggle” between traditional Republicans and those aligned with Trump for Senate leadership. “The uncertainty surrounding the departure of McConnell will exacerbate the dysfunctionalism that now prevails in the House,” he says. “For several months, the fractured and slim Republican House majority has been immobilized, resulting in the least productive House session in memory.”

What does this say about the direction of the Republican Party?

McConnell used to have a sizable influence over the Republican Party — that is, until former President Trump came along. The pair have been at odds for a while now, but they hit a breaking point with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

Even though the veteran lawmaker voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial that followed, he gave a scathing speech on the Senate floor saying the former president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

Trump, in turn, has repeatedly criticized McConnell. During a February 2024town hall with Fox News,the former president said he didn’t know if he “[could] work with him.” (Given their sour relationship, you would’ve never known that the two Republican leaders worked together to confirm three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of judges, which has fundamentally reshaped the federal judicial system. McConnell also played a key role inTrump’s passage of sweeping tax cuts in 2017and other initiatives.)

“Very few politicians have had a more powerful impact on our country,” says Shapiro. “Unfortunately, [McConnell] has been a relentless partisan, constantly putting party over country. He will be remembered principally for his role in creating an extreme Supreme Court, and for failing to stop Donald Trump’s assault on our democracy. His legacy will be a dark one.”

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