By Clare Foran, Morgan Rimmer and Ted Barrett, CNN

(CNN) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will step down as GOP leader in November, the Kentucky Republican announced on the Senate floor Wednesday, marking the end of an era on Capitol Hill and setting up a high-stakes race for his successor.

He will continue to serve in the US Senate but will allow “the next generation of leadership” to take the helm of the Senate Republican Conference.

McConnell, who turned 82 last week, said, “the end of my contributions are closer than I prefer.”

McConnell has long been a towering figure in Washington, DC, and has made history over the course of his political tenure. In 2023, McConnell became the longest-serving Senate party leader in history.

“As I have been thinking about when I would deliver some news to the Senate, I always imagined a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work,” McConnell said in his floor remarks. “A moment when I am certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. That day arrived today.”

He received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, approached him afterwards to shake his hand. He was followed by many of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, receiving a hug from Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

McConnell has suffered a string of high-profile health incidents over the past year.

In March, he was treated for a concussion after a fall at a hotel in Washington, DC.

Several months later, McConnell experienced episodes where he briefly appeared to freeze up on two separate occasions while speaking with reporters, incidents that sparked questions and concern over the Kentucky Republican’s health and fitness to lead the Senate Republican conference.

McConnell on Wednesday said his decision to step down came following the death of his wife Elaine Chao’s youngest sister, Angela, in a traffic accident earlier this month.

“As some of you may know, this has been a particularly difficult time for my family. We tragically lost Elaine’s younger sister, Angela, just a few weeks ago. When you lose a loved one, particularly at a young age, there’s a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process. Perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you of your own life’s journey to reprioritize the impact of the world that we will all inevitably leave behind,” he said.

He thanked his wife of 31 years, calling her the “love of my life” and that “I’m eternally grateful to have her by my side.”

He finished his speech by assuring his critics that he was prepared to be a thorn in their side for the rest of his time as leader.

“I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics, and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they’ve become accustomed,” he said.

Race for new Senate GOP leader already under way

The three Senate Republicans who are most closely-watched as potential successors are known on Capitol Hill as the “three Johns” — South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso.

Thune, who serves as Senate minority whip, wouldn’t say if he is running for leader following the announcement by McConnell.

“He leaves obviously big shoes to fill. I think there there’ll be plenty of time” to make a decision on running, he said. “Today, we just want to reflect on his service and honor him for that. And then well we’ll go from there.”

Cornyn repeatedly would not comment when asked if he will run for the post.

“I think Mitch has been one of a kind in terms of his leadership in the Senate,” he told CNN as he departed the floor after listening to McConnell’s speech.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Dana Bash and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.

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