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McConnell-Scott feud bursts out into the open

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The long-simmering tensions between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, are once again spilling out into the open, with a little over two months to go before the midterms.

McConnell — along with many other Republicans — has privately raised doubts for months about his party’s roster of Senate candidates and chances of recapturing control of the upper chamber in November. But with those concerns becoming increasingly apparent, Scott has begun to dig in his heels.

In an interview with Politico this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman acknowledged a “strategic disagreement” with McConnell. On Thursday, Scott penned an op-ed for the Washington Examiner in which he accused “the very people responsible for losing the Senate last cycle” of “trash-talking our Republican candidates.”

“If you want to talk about the need to raise more money to promote our candidates versus the Democrats’ terrible candidates, I agree. If you want to trash-talk our candidates to help the Democrats, pipe down,” Scott wrote. “That’s not what leaders do.”

Scott’s op-ed did not explicitly mention McConnell, a seasoned political operator known for taking a keen interest in his party’s approach to campaigning. But Scott’s message was unmistakable, coming just two weeks after McConnell downplayed the GOP’s prospects of recapturing control of the Senate and took a thinly veiled swipe at the quality of some of the party’s candidates.

“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said during an appearance in his home state last month. “Senate races are just different. They’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

McConnell’s remarks were a public acknowledgment of a concern that has mostly been expressed in private by many Republicans. In some of the country’s most hotly contested Senate primaries, Republican voters have nominated largely untested candidates, who were endorsed by former President Donald Trump but have struggled to get their general election campaigns off the ground.

In Georgia, where Republicans are trying to take down Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), the GOP nominee Herschel Walker has had to fight off questions about his business record and personal life, including the revelation that he has three children he failed to previously acknowledge publicly despite railing against absentee fathers.

Likewise, in Pennsylvania, polling has repeatedly shown celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, the Trump-backed Republican Senate nominee, trailing his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. In Ohio, a state that has lurched to the right in recent years, some Republicans have been caught off guard by how competitive the race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan has become.

And in Arizona, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC aligned with McConnell, cut roughly $8 million worth of ad reservations boosting Republican Senate nominee Blake Masters. 

The group’s president, Steven Law, said SLF is “leaving the door wide open in Arizona,” but wanted to reallocate money to other competitive races, as well as to make up for heavy spending in Ohio.

“A lot of these people – they’re struggling,” said one Republican donor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s candidates candidly. “I think had the Republican Party been more in control, they would have nominated really electable candidates.” 

“I still think, when it comes down to it, they can still win,” the donor added. “But if they lose, it’s going to be their own damn fault.”

Part of the frustration, according to several Republican strategists and operatives, stems from Scott’s hands-off approach to the primaries — a move that some Republicans say allowed Trump to elevate risky Senate candidates with little, if any, prior political experience.

Scott, meanwhile, has defended that approach, arguing that it should be up to Republicans voters — not politicians — to pick their nominees. Asked about McConnell’s remarks about candidate quality during an appearance on Fox News Radio’s “Brian Kilmeade Show” on Thursday, Scott called the comments “a shot at our candidates and the voters.”

“The people in these states, they picked these people,” Scott said. “So respect the vote of the people of these states.”

“I’m going to fight like hell every day and be a cheerleader for our hard-working candidates,” he added.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said that there’s no denying that the GOP is facing a hefty challenge in flipping the Senate, and that candidate quality is part of that equation. 

“It was always a fact that flipping the Senate was going to be harder than the House, and admitting that shouldn’t be a problem,” Heye said. “And now that we have a much more difficult terrain for the GOP, it should reemphasize that a lot of the curtain-measuring was wrong.”

“Candidate quality absolutely matters and we know that because we’ve seen Republicans give away seats over the past dozen years.”

But, Heye added, whether the GOP’s roster of Senate candidates succeeds or fails in November will have little to do with what criticism they get from anonymous political operatives.

“Every six years, there were GOPers trashing Richard Burr’s campaigning on background – and he won every single time,” Heye said, referring to the retiring senior senator from North Carolina. 

Scott, a former health care executive and two-term Florida governor, has reason to be skeptical of the party establishment’s traditional approach to primaries. In 2010, he won an upset victory in the Republican nominating contest for Florida governor that many GOP insiders believed favored now-former state Attorney General Bill McCollum. 

And it’s not the first time that McConnell and Scott have butted heads. Scott rankled the Senate minority leader earlier this year after he released his “Plan to Rescue America,” a policy agenda that some Republicans feared would muddle their messaging ahead of the midterms. 

McConnell sought to swiftly shut down any notion that Scott’s plan reflected what Senate Republicans would do if they recaptured the majority, saying that the GOP “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.”

Still, the latest spat between Scott and McConnell comes at an inopportune time. With the Senate split 50-50 between the two parties, Republicans are hoping to avoid any friction within their own ranks as they look to build a united front against Democrats this fall. 

But flipping control of the Senate this year means that Republicans will have to hold their current seats in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, and pick up at least one Democratic-held Senate seat — most likely in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada or New Hampshire.

That’s not to say that Republicans are pessimistic about their chances of winning back their Senate majority. One Republican strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns said that any tension between McConnell and Scott stemmed simply from a difference in philosophy and likely won’t weigh on the ultimate outcome of the midterms.

“I think, when it all comes down to it, they both want to get Republicans elected,” the strategist said. “You can disagree on the process. But if we win back the majority — and I think that we will — you can be damn sure that none of this is going to matter.”