It’s a tough spot to be in for a politician when you are asked about whether or not you’re prepared to run for reelection and you can’t physically answer the question.
“What are my thoughts about what?” asked McConnell, 81, during a Wednesday Kentucky press conference after a reporter asked him about his plans for reelection in 2026. When the reporter repeated the question, McConnell replied quietly, “Oh. That’s uh …” and froze.
He stood looking forward for nearly 30 seconds as staffers struggled in vain to get his attention, first asking him if he heard the question, then asking if he wanted to go outside and trying to get him to respond. As he was revived and regained some of his composure, one staffer simplified and repeated loudly two more questions from reporters, which he slowly answered and was guided away from the podium and out of the room.
His aides in Kentucky served the same role as Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso did last month when he stepped in to help after McConnell froze in front of a microphone for several seconds during a press event on Capitol Hill. Afterward, McConnell tried to laugh it off.
“The president called to check on me. I told him I got sandbagged,” he joked at the time, referring to President Joe Biden’s recent senior moment where he tripped over a sandbag and fell sprawling on the stage. Most political jokes only work once.
McConnell’s staff then — and now — claim the senator briefly got “lightheaded.” Whatever the problem is, Republicans are alarmed now that McConnell’s brain-freezes are looking worse than Biden’s, although not as frequent. More questions will be asked about the March accident that kept him away from the Senate for six weeks after he fell at a hotel, suffering a concussion and breaking a rib. McConnell also reportedly fell on some ice in Helsinki in February and again at an airport last July.
Aged senators staying long past their prime is a long-held bipartisan tradition in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, 90, is barely hanging on after a nearly three-month absence due to medical issues and a subsequent fall in August where she was hospitalized. Ninety-one-year-old Patrick Leahy announced in November that he would retire after he was hospitalized earlier last year. Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, ran for his seventh term in 2014, despite questions about his age and his health. He won, but retired in early 2018 and passed away less than a year after.
But no one has come close to the record of Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the longest serving senator in history died in office at the age of 92, after over 51 years in office. (McConnell has only been in office 38 years)
McConnell could have retired earlier with a strong enough legacy even after the era of President Donald Trump was cut short. He successfully navigated four years of a volatile president and delivered record results, including 226 judicial nominations through the Senate and three Supreme Court justices, securing a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench.
For whatever reason, he decided to linger after Trump was ousted by Biden in the 2020 election. McConnell was deeply disappointed after control of the Senate slipped from his grasp in early 2021, thanks to a pair of Democratic runoff election wins in Georgia. Republicans also failed to recapture the Senate in 2022, despite predictions of a “red wave” that would sweep Republicans back into power.
Failing to control the Senate might indicate it’s time to step down, but an entrenched leader gets to stay as long as his colleagues support the idea.
In 2022, he was reelected Republican leader 37-10-1. Despite the Republican political slump, McConnell became the longest-serving party leader in the Senate in January 2023, surpassing the record set by Senate Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana. “Look, I’m not going anywhere,” he told reporters when asked about his retirement plans.
Time and personal injury, however, can force anyone to step down. Take, for example, Democrat Senate Leader Harry Reid, who held onto power at the age of 75 until he suffered a strange incident with his “exercise band” that left him temporarily blinded with multiple broken bones around his right eye and multiple broken ribs. Despite repeating multiple times after the accident that he would run for reelection, Reid finally gave in and announced his retirement in March 2015.
Republicans face an unusual position this election year as they press the notion that Sen. Joe Biden, 80, is old physically and mentally unfit for office. To have their Senate leader in a similar position certainly makes them look hypocritical.
Senate Republicans will now face more questions from the press on Capitol Hill whether they trust that McConnell is healthy and fit to serve. There's a quiet contingent of Republicans in Washington, D.C., who believe it's time for McConnell to step aside. But barring another serious health incident, they might just have to wait.