The drama here is low-key, as McConnell always is. But there is drama, which you’d know if you read this post last week.
The nutshell version: Scott just released an 11-point plan to, well, make America great again once Republicans are back in charge in Washington. It’s his prerogative as a senator to do so. But Scott’s not just any senator — this cycle he’s the head of the NRSC, the group tasked with getting Republicans elected to the Senate. The NRSC typically works hand-in-glove with the leader of the Senate GOP caucus, Mitch McConnell. But McConnell has been emphatic that Senate Republicans won’t release any plans or agendas of their own before the midterms, not wanting to risk giving Democrats any ammunition for the coming campaign. McConnell wants the election to be about three things: Joe Biden, Joe Biden, and Joe Biden. A president with a 38 percent approval rating is headed for a shellacking unless he can change the subject.
So imagine McConnell’s annoyance when Scott decided to change the subject by releasing his plan. And imagine how further annoyed he was when he read through the plan and found proposals like this:
All Americans who pay no income tax are in line for a tax hike? Retirees too? If Scott’s serious, the GOP would be on the hook for raising taxes on something like 100 million people, many of them older and working-class who would otherwise be prone to vote for Republicans.
He stumbled across this proposal too:
“REPUBLICANS WANT TO PHASE OUT SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE IN FIVE YEARS,” Democratic attack ads will claim this fall.
That set the stage for this uncomfortable moment at this afternoon’s weekly Republican leadership press conference. Scott bugged out as soon as he finished speaking but note that McConnell launched into this spiel believing that Scott was standing behind him, in frame. That’s how eager he was to distance the GOP writ large from Scott’s new agenda. He was willing to embarrass the guy in the belief that he was right there, looking on. Watch, then read on.
When asked about Sen. Rick Scott's agenda, @LeaderMcConnell: "We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. That will not be part of the Republican Senate Majority Agenda." pic.twitter.com/XN7q9Kc6b4
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 1, 2022
McConnell reportedly scolded Scott about his plan at the Senate GOP’s weekly lunch today as well, telling him that it “gave Democrats ammunition for millions of dollars of ads in the midterms, according to multiple people briefed on the exchange.” Politico notes that Chuck Grassley’s Democratic opponent in Iowa has already seized on Scott’s call for term limits in his agenda, reminding Iowans that Grassley has been in the Senate for more than 40 years and will turn 90 next year.
Scott reportedly told McConnell that his agenda represents his personal preferences, nothing more, and that he doesn’t speak for the GOP. But that’s a hard argument to make when you happen to be the head of the NRSC and you know that Democrats are itching to go on the attack against Republicans after playing defense for a year. And Scott hasn’t been shy about promoting his new agenda. Reportedly he’s spending millions to highlight it in new TV ads.
We have, in other words, a direct strategic conflict between the head of the Senate GOP and the head of the NRSC. But there’s even more drama beneath the surface there than that implies.
You’ll notice in the clip how McConnell makes a point of saying that he’ll be the majority leader next year, not Scott, and therefore he’ll decide which proposals make it to the floor. That was no idle observation. After Scott released his agenda last week, some observers speculated that it was a hint he might challenge McConnell for majority leader. In fact, Trump’s own pollster raised that possibility, leading me to wonder if maybe Trump was quietly trying to goad Scott into ousting McConnell, a figure whom he despises. A few days later, Politico confirmed it: Trump is indeed trying to push Scott into a leadership challenge.
In a private meeting at Mar-a-Lago a few days ago, DONALD TRUMP made a personal pitch to Senate Republican campaign chief RICK SCOTT. “You should run for Senate majority leader,” he told the NRSC chair, according to someone familiar with the exchange.
It wasn’t the first time, either: Trump has repeatedly told Scott he’d be great at the job and should challenge MITCH MCCONNELL, multiple people familiar with the interactions told Playbook. The Florida Republican didn’t tell the former president “no” that day — though he’s told reporters that he supports McConnell for leader. Instead, he quickly pivoted to the reason for his meeting.
“We have to focus on winning” the Senate, Scott told Trump. “My only focus is on winning.”
Scott is an odd choice for Trump to settle on since he’s neither fish nor fowl politically, not a member of the clubby GOP Washington establishment but also not a MAGA firebreather. He’s a bit of a maverick, a guy without his own power base in the Senate caucus. Trump could deliver a few votes for him for majority leader, of course — presumably the Cruz/Hawley populist contingent that’s eager to suck up to him in hopes of courting his voters during a presidential run someday would do his bidding. But Trump would need north of 25 votes to oust McConnell. Where are those votes coming from? He couldn’t get anywhere near that number of Senate Republicans to object to certifying Biden’s victory on January 6 last year despite tremendous pressure from the base to do so.
In fact, I imagine that rank-and-file GOP senators look across the Capitol at Kevin McCarthy, forever forced to dance forlornly to Trump’s tune, and celebrate the fact that they have a leader in McConnell who’s established a degree of independence from Mar-a-Lago and MAGA. Why would they want to replace Cocaine Mitch with a guy like Scott who’d be under Trump’s thumb to a far greater degree than Scott would? McConnell is something of a “heat shield” for them, taking the brunt of Trump’s attacks whenever he’s whining about something. Scott might not shield them nearly as well.
But now you know why McConnell sounded the way he sounded at today’s presser. It wasn’t just a matter of distancing the caucus from the most unpopular items in Scott’s plan. It was a brushback pitch to Scott, and to Trump, in case they’re thinking of a leadership fight.
I’ll leave you with this, Scott’s new ad.