WASHINGTON – The last time Mitch McConnell wrestled back a Republican Senate majority was in 2014, when the GOP picked up a modern record of nine seats during the second midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The sweeping success of that cycle – perhaps the high point of the Kentuckian’s fabled political career – was at the forefront of his mind in early 2021 as he looked ahead to the midterm campaign that just unfolded.
While privately seething at former President Donald Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, he reminded himself that the key to his 2014 victories was confronting the extremists within his party running in primaries.
As the 2022 primary field took shape , McConnell did not intervene in the most high-priority Republican races that were key to reclaiming a majority. Instead, the GOP leader ceded that power to his nemesis, allowing Trump to select his favored candidates such as Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona, all who won their primaries but proved to be flawed general election offerings.
Oz and Masters were easily defeated in two key races that helped assure Democratic Senate control. Walker limped into a Dec. 6 runoff with Sen. Raphael Warnock, where the former star NFL running back remains an underdog.
Did McConnell really have any other choice? Should the “Old Crow” have attempted to stymie Trump-stamped candidates through his $250 million super PAC?
“I don’t want to second guess what Mitch’s super PAC did there because I think it would’ve been hard to have a real impact given the influence that Trump had,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative group which got in the former president’s crosshairs this cycle. “In the primaries, Trump was a huge factor.”
Besides, an open spat with Trump would’ve violated a cardinal McConnell rule to minimize intraparty conflict. And it’s a war he likely would’ve lost.
Yet as Republicans stare at another missed opportunity to control the U.S. Senate, the recriminations have been flying fast and fierce, with McConnell in the middle of the dart board.
Lacking the capacity to shoulder personal responsibility, Trump and his furious MAGA allies immediately saddled McConnell with the blame for falling short. McConnell’s associates along with Trump-fatigued Republicans in Washington, D.C., threw up their hands in pointing to the former president’s repeated electoral losses over the past four years. And a batch of GOP senators held the belief that the loss was embarrassing enough for all of their party’s leaders to take a lump and reassess the future.
Still, the hierarchy of the GOP took steps last week to largely stay the course. On Tuesday night, Trump announced his third run for the presidency in seven years. A day later, McConnell beat back a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott, as the caucus again crowned him Senate minority leader for another two years. Those twin events set up another turbulent period where he will be forced to bob and weave around Trump’s political fulminations and bitter personal attacks.
On the eve of the election, Trump told reporters that winning the White House will essentially precipitate the end of McConnell’s career.
“If I run and if I win, I will say don’t send me any legislation when he’s the leader and he’ll be out in two minutes,” Trump said.
McConnell’s template posture when it comes to Trump has been to ignore him altogether. The question is whether the silent treatment is sustainable as he maneuvers increasing fissures within the Senate GOP as Trump trudges toward the party’s presidential nomination once again.
What’s more clear is that as long as Trump is the dominant force in the party, McConnell’s considerable political and strategic power will be curtailed on the path to 2024, just as it was during the 2022 cycle.
“McConnell has now reached a point after which his control, his grip begins to loosen,” said Robert Draper, author of “Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind.” “He has managed pretty cleverly to navigate the reality that Trump has a stranglehold over the base of the Republican Party, but that is still a reality. And it just seems like the clock is ticking.”
In the days after the Election 2022 Senate defeats and ahead of Trump’s 2024 presidential announcement, McConnell acolytes sought to sound the alarm: It’s Trump who is the anchor on the party’s future.
“How could you look at these results tonight and conclude Trump has any chance of winning a national election in 2024?” Scott Jennings, a former McConnell adviser tweeted in the hours after the midterm results were laid bare. “Trump has never been weaker than he is today, certainly at least as weak as he was on Jan. 6.”
Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and an outside adviser, retweeted a string of anti-Trump missives, including one that called Trump a “clown.”
On his “Ruthless” podcast, Holmes concluded the Pennsylvania race was lost due to the former president’s imprimatur.
“The problem is that Oz was introduced to that electorate through Trump and he became the Trump-endorsed candidate,” Holmes said. “They couldn’t ultimately pull the lever for a Republican. They were still too scared.”
McConnell has mostly cocooned his thoughts about Trump to select allies and his tight inner circle, avoiding the public spectacle Trump thrives upon. Without assigning specifics, he allowed that the impression that GOP leaders were involved in “chaos, negativity and excessive attacks” frightened independent and moderate voters. In effect, he was referring to the extremists who he did not crush.
Undaunted, the more conservative flank of the party joined the MAGA wing to pile on McConnell relentlessly.
Their core contention is that McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, didn’t spend enough in key races like Arizona and New Hampshire to help candidates who expressed their distaste with McConnell, diverting its resources instead to other places like Alaska and Colorado on behalf of more mainstream Republicans.
“If we had a serious Senate leader who was seriously trying to get the Senate back, he would’ve focused on New Hampshire, he would’ve focused on Arizona,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a Florida-based GOP consultant and ardent Trump defender. “I don’t think he ever wanted to win. It’s widely known in Washington that McConnell likes to operate on a slim majority. McConnell doesn’t want to have a conference of 54-55 people. It’s harder for him to control. He certainly didn’t want Masters in there.”
The truth is a bit more nuanced. No entity spent more on Senate races than SLF. McConnell’s two aligned PACs invested $30 million in New Hampshire and $13 million in Arizona early on before pulling back in the final weeks of the campaign once strategists determined the races weren’t winnable and their money could be used more effectively in other states.
Nowhere did SLF allocate more than in Pennsylvania, where the result was a 4.5% Oz defeat to John Fetterman. In Arizona, where SLF spent least, Sen. Mark Kelly beat Masters by nearly the same margin of 5%.
“Trump defenders are just so reluctant to come to terms with his negative impact,” said Kevin Madden, a public affairs strategist who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “McConnell did what he could to recruit quality candidates who could take advantage of the mid-term historical advantage, but the Trump effect kept getting in the way. Instead of popular candidates like (Gov. Doug) Ducey in Arizona or (Gov. John) Sununu in New Hampshire you got first-timers like Masters and (Don) Bolduc who had toxic profiles thanks to their own words and deeds and a Trump endorsement to go with it. The same for Walker in Georgia and Oz in Pennsylvania.”
But Trump isn’t the only ambitious Florida Republican who has McConnell in his crosshairs.
Scott vs. McConnell
Rick Scott had barely settled into his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in January 2021 when his top political adviser fired off a curious email to a chain of GOP operatives that left many of them bewildered.
Curt Anderson’s email, sent just in the wake of the Senate runoff losses in Georgia, forwarded a column by The Federalist’s Ben Domenech that laid the blame for the party’s losses in the prior election squarely at the feet of McConnell.
Among the wider operative class and McConnell’s team specifically, it was taken as a direct potshot at the leader of the party and the man Scott was now expected to work hand-in-hand with during the 2022 midterm election.
The note from Anderson, described by one Senate aide as the Florida senator’s “bad angel,” would be far from the last unusual moment of Scott’s tenure at the NRSC – and hardly its most controversial.
But it was the first sign to McConnell’s world that Scott would be more of an emerging rival than an ally.
Fast-forward 22 months and Scott’s NRSC and McConnell’s SLF are openly at each other’s throats, with Scott having attempted to dethrone the Kentuckian from atop GOP leadership.
Scott put forward a controversial GOP 12-point blueprint for 2022 that included sunsetting popular federal programs like Medicare and Social Security, a plan McConnell and other GOP senators would not embrace. McConnell preferred simply to run against Democrats’ record on inflation, crime and illegal immigration.
While Democrats, including President Joe Biden, attacked some of the features in Scott’s plan, there’s now considerable second-guessing over McConnell’s strategy to offer voters nothing except Republican rule.
“It was a massive strategic miscalculation from McConnell and (House GOP Leader Kevin) McCarthy,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an aide to former President Barack Obama on the “Pod Save America” podcast. “They wanted to be the generic alternative. And by being the generic alternative who stood for nothing, they created a vacuum that Democrats filled with accurate pictures of their extremism.”
From the right, the popular conservative radio host Mark Levin landed the same critique on his program.
“McConnell decided to run on nothing. He had no substantive agenda. None. Zero.
“What are you running on? Nothing,” Levin said, assailing McConnell’s policy and political impact. “Who did he campaign for? Nobody. They talk about Trump, ‘Don’t show up in Georgia.’ McConnell can’t show up in Georgia, McConnell couldn’t show up in Nevada. McConnell couldn’t show up in Pennsylvania, couldn’t show up in New York. Can’t show up anywhere. … He’s the most despised Republican politician of all Republican politicians.”
A mid-November national Civiqs poll found McConnell’s national favorability rating at just 7%.
McConnell’s twilight into 2024
As his friends and foes acknowledge alike, McConnell has survived personal unpopularity for the bulk of his career.
At the start of the next Congress, he is set to surpass Democrat Mike Mansfield as the longest-serving Senate leader in history, an approaching feat he regularly beams with pride about during his stops around Kentucky.
But as he nears the record and enters what’s believed to be the twilight of his career, the 80-year-old McConnell will be ruling over an increasingly rambunctious caucus that is openly irritated about the party’s underperformance in 2022 and seeking fresh remedies on the path to 2024.
Scott’s challenge may have only been the first flare.
The acrimony will only worsen if the party again falls in the approaching Georgia runoff. McConnell’s SLF and the NRSC have already commenced taking swipes at each other over resource allocation there.
And yet Georgia is another prime example of the conundrum that accompanies McConnell’s strategic passivity.
Walker was hardly McConnell’s first choice as a Senate candidate. But once Trump endorsed him, he slowly climbed on board, embracing appeasement in hopes of eventual power.
“What McConnell told others was that (North Carolina Sen.-elect Ted) Budd and Walker were Trump acolytes only for the moment,” wrote Draper in his book. “As Trump’s influence waned, so would these men shed their MAGA skin and adapt to the more even-tempered ways of the Senate.”
McConnell chose not to marshal support for Trump’s impeachment conviction in 2021 when he had the chance; he did not confront his candidate choices in 2022. Those who watch him closely doubt he’ll change course in 2023.
McConnell innately thinks he can bend the caucus to his will over time. But a growing number of younger, more vocal and ideologically driven Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen.-elect J.D. Vance of Ohio could make it a tortured tenure, especially with Trump hectoring from his candidate pulpit.
“I do think there’s going to be a sea change in terms of how much power he has as the leader,” McIntosh said of McConnell.
McConnell likes to quip that being in the majority is much better than serving in the minority.
But given the level of acrimony currently consuming the party, there’s now an open question over who’s more likely to see that goal come to fruition: Mar-a-Lago’s most famous resident or the leader from Louisville.
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