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Kentucky law dictates a Republican would replace McConnell if he vacates Senate seat


Senator Mitch McConnell's freeze-up at a news conference last week is raising questions about how much longer he can serve as the senior U.S. senator for Kentucky. A spokesperson says McConnell plans to finish his term, which ends in 2027, but lawmakers are wondering what could happen if he were to step down. Back in 2021, Kentucky's Republican-led legislature passed a law ensuring that McConnell's possible successor would be a Republican. The state's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, vetoed the bill, but he was overruled by the legislature. For more, I'm joined now by Austin Horn, who is a politics reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Austin, so what is Governor Beshear's argument against the current law?

AUSTIN HORN: Good morning, A. The argument against, presented in the governor's old veto message, is based on the U.S. Constitution's 17th Amendment. It's kind of one of those amendments we often forget about. And in 1912, it allowed voters to cast direct votes for U.S. senators. And prior to its passage, senators were chosen by legislatures. The governor's office has been careful to not make a comment on this front in recent days. But it's kind of the consensus among Kentucky Democrats and those in the capital that Beshear would be inclined to push back either by appointing a Democrat, unlike the law says, or stalling and challenging the law. Or, you know, he could always follow the law, but that's not expected.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, if Senator McConnell were to step down, other than the options you just gave us - I mean, he's limited to that, right? He can't really do much else.

HORN: Right. He could choose to follow that law, or he could either stall or appoint a Democrat...


HORN: ...And kind of ignore the law in that way as well.

MARTÍNEZ: In Kentucky, how crucial is Mitch McConnell to the Republican Party?

HORN: Yeah. He's often called the godfather of Kentucky Republican politics here. It's hard to overstate how integral he's been and still is to the state GOP, even on kind of granular decision-making levels. I mean, the state headquarters is even named after him. When he first took his seat in 1984, Kentucky politics was dominated by Democrats. And now, after years with McConnell at the top of the party, the Statehouse is 80-20 Republican, and the federal delegation's largely Republican, too.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator McConnell, we know, has fallen a couple of times - actually physically fallen a few times in recent months. So what potential issues does that present for Republicans?

HORN: You're right. And it's hard to deny that his health has become a source of speculation in the state. The Republicans are outwardly really confident of his health. In private, it is another story, though, and I think one big material concern in the party, should a vacancy occur, is, who fills the vacuum as the anchor of the party in the state? Could our junior senator become more involved at the state level, or could one of our higher-profile congressmen like a Thomas Massie or James Comer reach for that seat? Or, you know, we may get a Republican governor soon.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Austin Horn with the Lexington Herald-Leader - Austin, thanks.

HORN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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