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Mitch McConnell’s Leadership Is Suddenly at Risk. Let the “Game of Johns” Begin.

Mitch McConnell’s Leadership Is Suddenly at Risk. Let the “Game of Johns” Begin.

Mitch McConnell and some red, white, and blue.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. Mitch McConnell

The end to a nearly two-decade reign can come quick.

No one seriously entertained the idea that Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving Senate party leader ever and a fact of life in the institution, might leave his leadership post before his current term expires in Jan. 2027. Not after he suffered a concussion earlier this year, and was sidelined for weeks. And not even after he froze at a press conference in July, and had to be whisked away by a colleague before returning to take questions. But this week’s freeze, during a press conference in Kentucky, instantaneously sparked a full frenzy—both in the media and among those he leads—about the future of his leadership, something he has been reaaaallly hoping to avoid. Though McConnell quickly worked the phones to reassure allies that all was well, and he got the Capitol physician to scribble a note assuring everyone that all was hunky-dory, the questions aren’t going to go away as easily as he would like. A group of Republican senators are considering convening a “special” meeting about the future of GOP Senate leadership. (They could also just discuss it in one of the three times they have lunch together each week. But that wouldn’t be as special!) What is most likely to happen? Honestly, take it from McConnell’s sharpest antagonist in the Senate, who challenged him for the Republican leader position last fall. “I expect he’ll continue to be the Republican leader through this term,” Rick Scott told CBS News. Then they’ll decide about the future after the next election. But another “incident” or two could hasten that schedule. It’s genuinely hard to envision a Senate Republican conference without McConnell as its leader and chief strategist. We could be there sooner than you think.

Rank 2

2. The Three Johns

Who would replace Mitch?

Say McConnell leaves leadership and/or the Senate early, either at the end of the current Congress or after a few more freezes. We thought we’d have until 2026 or so to figure this out. But now, the Game of Johns must begin. The three most-discussed successors are South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the current no. 2 Republican; Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who preceded Thune as McConnell’s no. 2 before being term-limited out; and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the current no. 3. From a reporter’s perspective, either Thune or Cornyn would be fine because they’re friendly and chatty. This is also the perspective of many Senate Republicans, and why Barrasso is the least likely successor. (Barrasso is, however, the most conservative of the bunch, and the only one whom Trump may not loathe.) Thune might be the leading contender just because he holds the deputy position now, and because he’s handsome, but he also may kind of hate his life and/or the Senate and not want to assume such a burden. Cornyn loves the Senate and is quite open about his interest in succeeding McConnell. He also has a record of leading unlikely bipartisan legislation such as last Congress’ bipartisan gun control act. The contest will come down to a battle of ideas! (It will come down to who can raise the most M-O-N-E-Y.) 

Rank 3

3. Donald Trump

Defendant on trial by day, candidate by night.

In a spicy hearing this week, Judge Tanya Chutkan set a trial date for Donald Trump’s federal (not Georgia!) election subversion case: March 4, 2024. That’s in, like, 10 minutes. Special counsel Jack Smith’s prosecution team had asked for an even quicker date (in January), while Trump’s defense team had requested a trial date in 2026, or perhaps never. (Would never work for Judge Chutkan? It would not.) If the March date holds, we have to consider what candidate Trump’s primary campaign schedule will look like. As this excellent calendar graphic from the Washington Post shows, the March 4 trial date is the day before Super Tuesday, which is followed a week later by another big primary week. The Iowa caucuses are the same day as another E. Jean Carroll civil defamation trial. The New York case is scheduled for March 25, still in the heat of the primary, and the classified documents case is set to begin in mid-May, near the end of the calendar. Now, the Surge does wonder how Trump is going to manage campaigning while he is on trial for many crimes and for many weeks at a time. It’s likely going to be a hefty gas bill for the ol’ Trump Force One, as Trump leaves court at 5-ish each day, flies to a hangar somewhere for a rally, and then flies back to get a modest night’s sleep before another day of prosecution. There’s a good chance, though, that he won’t really need to campaign that much. If he rattles off early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—or even just the last two—the primary’s over.

Rank 4

4. Vivek Ramaswamy

When even Donald Trump is telling you to exercise caution…

The ascendant primary field troll, whom Mike Pence fantasizes about disciplining with corporal punishment and placing in timeout, has continued to feel his oats and speak filter-free. This week, he referenced past comments made by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who is Black, and said that they were representative “of the modern grand wizards, of the modern KKK.” And, just as he had hoped, he was asked about the comments on CNN, which provided him an opportunity to Not Apologize for Speaking Truth. It’s a racially inflammatory model for primary success we’ve seen mastered by another non-apologizer before. But even that guy is a little weirded out. In an interview with Glenn Beck this week, Trump was overall complimentary toward Ramaswamy. Still, Trump said, he may need to chill a touch. “He’s starting to get out there a little bit,” Trump said. “He’s a little bit—a—getting a little bit controversial. I’d tell him be a little bit careful. Some things you have to hold in just a little bit, right?” Trump … warning someone to not be controversial … to be careful … to hold it in a little bit … just … guh. THAT IS OUR POLITICAL COMMENTARY ON THIS: “GUH.”

Rank 5

5. Kevin McCarthy

No spendy, no impeachy.

As we discussed last week, the House speaker is in a typically impossible situation ahead of a Sept. 30 government funding deadline. He wants to pass a short-term bill keeping the government funded until early December while a larger spending agreement is negotiated; the Freedom Caucus has said no, and it could take a swing at McCarthy’s speakership if he bypasses them with Democratic votes. C’est la vie. One argument McCarthy introduced this week to bring them around was: If we don’t fund the government, it’s going to set back Biden impeachment efforts—and you Freedom Caucus people do love Biden impeachment efforts, right? “If we shut down, all the government shuts it down—investigation and everything else,” McCarthy said in a Fox News interview. This appears to have had no effect whatsoever on the Freedom Caucus’ thinking. “It’s not as if the investigators won’t be considered necessary or essential personnel,” Colorado Rep. Ken Buck told the New York Times. McCarthy, he said, “is the one who decides how much of the House we shut down.” Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale, meanwhile, said on Fox News that McCarthy’s argument that “if you don’t get this continuing resolution passed, we won’t be able to pursue the impeachment inquiry” was a “shiny object.” Tough crowd, as ever.

Rank 6

6. Clarence Thomas

The libs made me take the billionaire benefactor’s private plane.

The Supreme Court justice who failed to disclose his cushy financial relationship with a billionaire friend finally did so this week after months of public scrutiny. In his disclosure, Thomas reported three private flights from that billionaire, Texas dictator-memorabilia collector Harlan Crow, in 2022. One was a round trip to Crow’s Adirondacks estate in July. Two others, in February and May, were to conferences in Dallas at a property owned by Crow’s real estate company. For the February trip, which was only a private return flight, he said there was an ice storm. During the May trip, though, he noted that he flew Crow’s flashy jet because of “increased security risk following the Dobbs opinion leak.” No doubt there were increased security risks. But why don’t the rest of us yokels get schlepped around by private jets when we’re in grave danger? The Surge is often at great risk following its landscape-shifting political commentary and disputes over its rigorous ranking metrics. You should see the mobs collecting outside Surge HQ when Chuck Schumer is ranked sixth instead of fourth on any given week. Where’s our Harlan Crow? Where’s our private plane? It’s probably time to end this entry?

Rank 7

7. Blake Masters

The worst primary in history is coming into view.

Republican Blake Masters, the 2022 Arizona Republican Senate candidate and tech weirdo who failed the “don’t scare the children” test of winning general elections, is reportedly preparing to jump into the 2024 race for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat. That could set him on a primary collision course with Republicans’ 2022 gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake, who still thinks she is governing Arizona from her suite in Mar-a-Lago. If this primary happens, it would handily defeat the Ohio 2022 Senate Republican primary as the most psychotic Senate primary in recent memory. They would be debating with neon-green eyes, upside down, hanging from spiderwebs on the ceiling, and the winner would get no money from the national Republican Party. And yet, this is not great news for the libs. The crazier the Republican nominee, the better the chance that Sinema—despite having formed a diverse coalition of hatred toward her within the state—would be able to pull off a narrow, plurality win, defeating Rep. Ruben Gallego on the Democratic ticket. Things are getting HOT, HOT, HOT in Arizona—where there’s no water, yikes!

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