Republican leaders in Congress scrambled to fend off challenges from loyalists of former president Donald Trump as the party was engulfed by internal tensions after lacklustre results in the midterm elections.
A week ago, Republicans failed to regain control of the Senate from Democrats and are poised to win only a slim majority in the House of Representatives, as the “red wave” of widespread wins they saw coming on the eve of the election failed to materialise.
In a secret ballot on Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, was backed to be his party’s nominee for speaker by a margin of 188 to 31 votes, but so many defections spell trouble ahead of a formal vote in early January when he will need support from 218 lawmakers for the top job.
“The American people want us to turn a page. They do not want excuses or performance art, they want action and results,” Andy Biggs, the Republican lawmaker from Arizona who was challenging McCarthy, wrote on Twitter before the vote.
Meanwhile, Rick Scott, a Republican senator from Florida close to Trump, said he would try to unseat Mitch McConnell, the veteran senator from Kentucky, from his role as party leader in the upper chamber of Congress, in a vote due on Wednesday.
“The status quo is broken and big change is needed. It’s time for new leadership in the Senate that unites Republicans to advance a bold conservative agenda,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, after telling his colleagues in a closed-door luncheon.
The split among Republicans has opened up because allies of Trump, who is poised to announce a new presidential run on Tuesday night, are blaming party leaders for the poor showing of many of their preferred candidates in the midterms. “This election was the funeral for the Republican Party as we know it,” Josh Hawley, the senator from Missouri, told reporters on Tuesday. “And voters have made that clear.”
On the other hand, many other Republicans have accused Trump of sabotaging their party’s political appeal by backing extremist election-denying candidates and stumping aggressively for them in the final stages of the campaign, leading to a backlash among moderate and independent voters. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, McConnell said the “chaos, negativity and excessive attacks” associated with some candidates had “frightened” voters.
In the Senate, a number of Republicans, such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have called for a delay in the leadership election and suggested they may well support Scott.
“Personally, I think it is insane, it would be nuts for us to have leadership elections now and simply re-elect the exact same leadership,” Cruz told Fox Business on Tuesday.
However, McConnell still has strong support from many other senators. “I have the votes, I will be elected, the only issue is whether we do it sooner or later,” McConnell insisted.
He has clashed with Scott this year about the party’s handling of the midterm elections, particularly since the Florida senator chaired the party’s campaign committee for the upper chamber and was responsible for fundraising, communicating and selecting candidates for a flurry of races that ended in defeat.
“There were a lot, a lot of disappointments,” Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is a potential rival to Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination but has not weighed on the leadership contests, said on Tuesday. “That’s just the reality. It was a hugely underwhelming, disappointing performance, especially given that [president Joe] Biden’s policies are overwhelmingly unpopular.”