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Inside the intense rivalry between Mitch McConnell and Rick Scott

(CNN) A simmering conflict between Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is heating up in the closing days of the fall campaigns, as the two Republicans battle behind the scenes over who will get the credit for a big win -- and who will bear the blame if the party falls short.

Allies of McConnell say the longtime leader of the GOP Senate conference has kept his operation focused on winning the majority in the most efficient and straightforward way possible. But Scott, the chairman of the GOP's campaign arm, has attempted to bolster candidates his allies say have been unfairly counted out by establishmentarians like McConnell.

The fight -- manifested by changing ad buys, surrogate appearances and whispers to reporters -- is the culmination of a rocky working relationship this cycle between the two Republican senators and described to CNN by eight GOP operatives and strategists. As the midterm elections come to a close, Scott's ambitious push to win a big, sweeping majority on a conservative policy agenda is in a stress test against McConnell's more restrained goal of simply winning control.

"McConnell wants to be leader," said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist. "Scott wants to be a legend."

Scott, who many Republicans say has presidential ambitions, has annoyed and frustrated McConnell allies who see his actions as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee as self-serving and strategically flawed. But people close to Scott have accused McConnell of deploying a cautious and conservative approach that has limited the GOP's ability to replicate in the Senate what many in the party expect to be an electoral wave in the House.

Saddled with a challenging map and difficult nominees, McConnell has concentrated on keeping every Republican-held seat and picking up the two most winnable Democratic seats, in Nevada and Georgia. Doing so would give the GOP just enough to win control of the Senate.

"The mission is taking back the Senate majority," said one Republican strategist familiar with McConnell world's thinking. "Full stop."

Scott considers himself anti-establishment since he won his 2010 primary for Florida governor, and he has been more willing to stand behind by the party's more controversial nominees in races that, until recently, seemed out-of-reach for Republicans.

"I think McConnell's always a little more cautious. His strategy's always about putting all our eggs in one basket," said a Republican operative working on Senate races. "Rick Scott is always saying, 'let's get as big a majority as possible.'"

A second Republican operative working on Senate races this cycle dismissed the idea that Scott's campaigning for controversial candidates, as he did for Herschel Walker in Georgia in October, means as much as the investment from Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC that has spent more than $32 million on ads going after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

"Would you rather have an old guy from Washington coming to do a press conference, or would you rather have $50 million?" said the second operative.

Bolduc race showcases differences between Scott and McConnell

New Hampshire is the latest site of the leaders' divergent approaches.

Republican nominee Don Bolduc was half-heartedly embraced by the party establishment after winning a late primary in September. In mid-October the Senate Leadership Fund, the primary super PAC affiliated with McConnell, pulled out the more than $3 million it had reserved for ads to support Bolduc against Sen. Maggie Hassan, the incumbent Democrat.

Republican observers noted the withdrawal came after Bolduc reiterated his opposition to backing McConnell as majority leader.

"I want leadership to change in the United States Senate," Bolduc told CNN's Gloria Borger last month.

But people familiar with the move said it simply indicated SLF's priority of redeploying funds to shore up candidates in must-win states. And in fact, days after their New Hampshire withdrawal, SLF announced that it would invest about $6 million more in Pennsylvania ad buys to boost Mehmet Oz over Democratic nominee John Fetterman.

But some Republicans have privately complained that SLF had pulled out just as their internal polling showed a tightening race in New Hampshire. On the same day SLF announced its new Pennsylvania investment, the NRSC announced it would be putting $1 million into New Hampshire. Scott, meanwhile, campaigned with Bolduc in New Hampshire on Sunday.

"Kind of an odd decision for me, particularly where the environment is," said the first Republican operative working on Senate races. "It's trending our way."

Those who defend McConnell note that SLF has been the most important outside spending group for Republicans, shelling out more money to help GOP candidates in the general election than the NRSC. Despite pulling out of New Hampshire for the final stretch, SLF had previously spent nearly $16 million to boost Bolduc and go after Hassan. But the priorities have to be the must-win races that remain close, say McConnell allies.

"It's a finite pie," said the Republican strategist familiar with McConnell's thinking. "Everybody thinks it's Monopoly money."

SLF's 'strong finish'

The real money McConnell and his donor network have been able to raise and spend on behalf of GOP Senate candidates is remarkable, especially given what Republicans say have been difficult financial circumstances.

Democratic candidates have outraised their GOP opponents in just about every contested race. The NRSC, meanwhile, faced a cash crunch this fall following an aggressive fundraising strategy that The New York Times reported had Republicans, including McConnell, "fretting aloud" about the lack of funds from the party's main committee.

Operatives say McConnell and SLF president Steve Law jumped in to fill the void.

"McConnell and Law have been masterful dealing with the NRSC, weak campaigns and the strategic way to spend resources," said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP operative. "The cycle started playing all defense and they turned it around with a strong finish."

According to the Federal Elections Commission, through November 1 SLF and its affiliated outside groups have spent more than $237 million during the 2022 cycle, including more than $56 million in Pennsylvania, more than $38 million in Georgia, more than $37 million in North Carolina and more than $32 million in Ohio -- numbers that could increase when the final week of spending is added to the ledger, according to a person familiar with the group's finances.

But some of those spending decisions have carried costs, including battles between McConnell and other power brokers in the GOP.

Most notably, SLF's shift in money toward Ohio to boost J.D. Vance came at the expense of the party's Senate nominee in Arizona, Blake Masters. Both nominees had been propped up in their primaries by tech billionaire Peter Thiel and pushed over the line by an endorsement from a close Thiel ally, Donald Trump. But since winning their primaries, Thiel had donated next to nothing to boost his two champions in the general election.

Law's announcement in September that SLF would be pulling some of its spending in Arizona contained a thinly veiled message for Thiel to get involved.

"We're leaving the door wide open in Arizona but we want to move additional resources to other offensive opportunities that have become increasingly competitive, as well as an unexpected expense in Ohio," he said in a statement at the time.

Behind the scenes, McConnell and Thiel, or their representatives, had been in negotiations off-and-on for months about Thiel getting financially involved. Thiel's efforts to have SLF match his contribution, an ongoing conversation that increasingly seemed like a game of chicken, appeared fruitless. Neither side has committed in Arizona, though a PAC that had been linked to Thiel began to buy up TV ads in October to boost Masters.

Other outside groups, including the Trump-aligned super PAC MAGA, Inc. and the Club for Growth, are making their own late investments in Arizona.

Masters, like Bolduc in New Hampshire, has been critical of McConnell and has said he wants a new leader for the Republican conference. And SLF's withdrawal from Arizona has drawn criticism from the likes of Trump, who criticized McConnell in a recent statement for not helping Masters more while SLF funds Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who has a Trump-backed challenger in the state's nonpartisan, ranked-choice primary election.

But despite the carping from Trump and grumbling from others, allies of McConnell view the Arizona standoff as a win for the GOP leader, in line with how he has tried to marshal resources without taking stock of the noise from within his own party. And it's the command of those resources that has enabled McConnell to remain at the helm of the party in the Senate, despite the challenges posed by former presidents or eccentric benefactors -- or ambitious campaign chairs like Rick Scott.

"McConnell's the leader," said one Republican with ties to both McConnell and Scott. "He has the support of the donors. He has the support of the senators. That's it."