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Second McConnell health scare fuels increased speculation about possible Senate vacancy

J. Tyler Franklin | LPM

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell had another health scare this week, fueling questions how Kentucky would fill his seat if the Republican leader is unable to finish his term.

In 2021, the General Assembly changed a law shifting the power to fill Senate vacancies from the governor to the party of the lawmaker leaving office. That raises questions whether Daniel Cameron is running for the right office at the right time.

Cameron worked as legal counsel to McConnell before being elected attorney general. He’s been suggested as the heir apparent to McConnell’s seat. With the senator’s health in question and Cameron down in the polls in his bid for governor, Western Kentucky University Political Science professor Scott Lasely says he doesn’t think Cameron’s run for statewide office was a miscalculation.

“I think this was a decision made largely because Daniel Cameron prefers to serve as governor than in the U.S. Senate," Lasley told WKU Public Radio. "Otherwise, I think he would have waited.”

If Cameron wins the governor's race in November, Lasley believes he’ll be on a short list of high-profile Republicans for national office, including president. If he loses, the question will be whether Cameron would have been better off waiting four more years for an open seat for governor or U.S. Senate.

"If he doesn’t run for governor and that’s the position he wants, if there’s a Republican incumbent governor in four years, then he’s frozen at that point. So it’s difficult to make these projections," Lasley said. "It will be easier in a year to decide and analyze whether he made the right decision.

Lasley says he expects McConnell to serve out the remainder of his term that ends in early 2027, but if he departs the office early, the Kentucky Republican Party's executive committee would send Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a list of three names he could consider for filling the Senate vacancy.

Lasley says the new law is the exception to the rule.

“To my knowledge, Wyoming is the only case where something like this has happened before," he said. "For the most part, it’s up to the governor to make the appointment and most states haven’t messed with that formula.”

Gov. Beshear vetoed the legislation, but the GOP-controlled legislature overrode it, putting the new law into place. Beshear, a former Kentucky attorney general, has signaled that he thinks the law spelling out how Senate vacancies are filled will be challenged in court, and claims it violates the U.S. and Kentucky Constitutions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Capitol physician has cleared McConnell to return to work following this week’s incident where the senator was briefly unable to speak during a news conference. The doctor said occasional light-headedness is common in patients recovering from a concussion, which McConnell suffered in March.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.