What would happen if Mitch McConnell steps down? Here’s a look at Kentucky’s process

WASHINGTON – After Sen. Mitch McConnell froze up for a second time during a press conference on Wednesday, questions about his health and what would happen if the 81-year-old Kentucky Republican is no longer able to serve have resurfaced.

In the latest episode, McConnell was asked about running for reelection in 2026 and appeared to start answering before quickly freezing and going silent for seven seconds. This incident comes a month after McConnell abruptly stopped speaking and stood silently for roughly 28 seconds during a press conference and had to be escorted away from a lectern by his Republican colleagues.

The longest serving GOP Senate leader also suffered a broken rib and a concussion from a fall in March, and fell two other times – once at an airport in the District of Columbia last month and another time during a foreign trip in February.

Though his doctors cleared him last week – saying that “occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery” – some local GOP Kentucky officials have questioned whether it was time for McConnell to step down. His campaign told USA TODAY last month that he will continue serving in the Senate.

Here’s a look at what would happen if McConnell were to step down.

How would McConnell be replaced?

In the event that a Senate seat becomes vacant, most states typically allow a sitting governor to appoint a temporary replacement without restrictions until voters can elect someone new. While that was the case with Kentucky previously, the state legislature – under the recommendation of McConnell – passed Senate Bill 228 in 2021 that altered that process.

If McConnell steps down, the Kentucky governor – Democrat Andy Beshear – may only choose one out of three names recommended by the executive committee of the Republican Party of Kentucky as a temporary replacement.

After the vacancy is filled, a special election will follow in which any candidate who gains at least 1,000 signatures can run for that position. A candidate with more than 50% of the vote would win, but if no one wins a majority of the vote, the top two vote getters would go on to a runoff election in 70 days.

The timing of the special election depends on when the vacancy occurred.

For instance, if the vacancy occurred three months before a regularly scheduled election, then the election would take place, but if it occurred less than three months before an election and a regular election is scheduled the following year, the latter election date is when the vote for the Senate seat would occur.

If there is no regular election scheduled the following year — or the vacancy occurs in a year without a regular scheduled election — the governor must within 30 days of the vacancy call for a special election to be held within 60 to 90 days.

Is there possibility a Democrat could be chosen to replace him?

Kentucky hasn’t had a U.S. Democratic senator since January 1999, and Senate Bill 228 could possibly act as a way for the GOP party to remain in power. But Beshear could also challenge the bill and appoint a Democrat to fill the vacant seat if McConnell chooses to step down.

Beshear has previously claimed that the bill violated the 17th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says that “the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”

He vetoed the bill, though it was overridden into law.

But Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s law school, told Newsweek that if Kentucky Democrats did challenge the bill, they would face an “uphill battle” in court.

“While it’s always hard to predict what a court will do, I don’t think the Kentucky law is unconstitutional,” Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s law school, told the outlet. “The 17th Amendment states that the Legislature ‘may empower the executive’ to fill a vacancy, and I think a court would say that empowering the executive can include parameters under which the executive may act.”

Contributing: Morgan Watkins, Louisville Courier Journal

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: If Mitch McConnell steps down, who would take his spot? Here’s a look

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