• Politics
  • Congress

Mitch McConnell to Step Down as GOP Leader, Ending Historic Tenure

5 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving Senate party leader in history, will step down from his leadership role in November after an almost 18-year tenure in one of the nation's most influential political positions.

"One of life’s most under-appreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter,” McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “So I stand before you today…to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.”

The 82-year-old Kentucky Republican, who has dealt with recent health issues, said he would finish out his term as Senator but acknowledged that “the end of my contributions are closer than I prefer.”

McConnell's leadership has been marked by exceptional legislative prowess. One of his most lasting legacies may be how he reshaped the federal judiciary and steered the confirmation of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court during the Trump Administration. Republican lawmakers praised the outgoing leader on Wednesday. “Mitch McConnell is one of the great lions of the United States Senate,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in a statement. “He saved the Supreme Court, preserved the rules and customs of the Senate, and always protected the free-speech rights of Americans, even when it was unpopular… His legacy will always live in the halls of our hallowed Capitol.”

But McConnell’s decision to give up his spot atop the Republican conference also underscores a shifting landscape within his party, particularly evident in his clashes with former President Donald Trump over issues like the 2020 election results and the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

During the Trump Administration, McConnell’s leadership was often tested as the former President’s policy positions and personality forced him to navigate more internal division and ideological clashes. Recently, he has found himself increasingly at odds with some members of his own party’s far-right flank despite attempts to rally support for key initiatives, including bolstering Ukraine's defenses and addressing border security concerns.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a harsh McConnell critic who was elected in 2019, began calling on the GOP leader to step aside more than a year ago. “This is a good development. My question is: Why wait so long?" Hawley said Wednesday. “We need new leadership now.”

While McConnell led his party during Barack Obama’s presidency, he worked against some of the 44th President’s signature goals. He was a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, and blocked Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee by refusing to fill a vacant seat for 11 months during the 2016 election.

McConnell’s departure now comes at a pivotal moment for the Republican Party, as it navigates a post-Trump landscape and seeks to redefine its identity. In recent months, he has been a leading voice advocating for substantial U.S. support to Ukraine in its war against Russia, despite facing resistance from elements of his party more closely aligned with Trump’s isolationist stance. “I believe more strongly than ever that America’s global leadership is essential to preserving the shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan discussed,” McConnell said.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday, the audience erupted in applause when Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, who opposes sending more money to Ukraine, said that McConnell needs to “look in the mirror” and “accept that your job has been a failure.”

"Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” McConnell added Wednesday. “I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

McConnell’s announcement to step down comes after his health became the subject of speculation following a bad fall last year and two public episodes where his face briefly froze while speaking. One of the freeze incidents happened after he was asked whether he would run for re-election. The Capitol’s attending physician said at the time that the incidents were likely caused by dehydration or post-concussion stress after his fall, which also resulted in a fractured rib.

"I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics,” McConnell said, “and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they've become accustomed." 

McConnell’s speech on the Senate floor announcing his decision was met with applause. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was the first to shake his hand afterwards. "During my years in the Senate, Mitch McConnell and I rarely saw eye to eye when it came to our politics or our policy preferences,” Schumer later said in a statement. “But I am very proud that we both came together in the last few years to lead the Senate forward at critical moments when our country needed us."

At the White House, President Joe Biden said he was “sorry to hear” that McConnell would be stepping down. The pair worked closely together during Biden’s time in the Senate, a bond that helped build their relationship when he became Vice President. “He and I have trust,” Biden said. “We fight like hell but he never, never, never misrepresented anything.”

An election to fill McConnell’s position is slated to occur in November with his successor taking over in January. Some Republicans that could be frontrunners in the contest include 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. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com