So when Justice entered the Senate race on Thursday, he highlighted the heart of McConnell’s 2024 strategy. After several Trump-inspired candidates failed last fall and denied a GOP majority, the Kentucky Republican hopes to pursue a Senate campaign plan that is separate from the presidential race. This means that candidates who can win even with the former president will be back at the polls next year.
McConnell’s bet underscores the reality that, as the presidential primary continues to heat up, he’s probably Trump’s biggest foil in the Republican Party right now. He hasn’t changed his mind about Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election, according to confidants, and he sees Trump’s nomination making it harder to defeat Joe Biden next year.
But McConnell, true to form, isn’t letting emotion or his low opinion of Trump get in the way of the task at hand. The Senate GOP leader doesn’t talk about Trump in public and does so little in private.
This is despite Trump ruthlessly lashing out at McConnell and unleashing racist attacks on his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. And although McConnell called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.
“McConnell spoke very clearly about … his huge disagreements with the [former] president. And I think the personal attacks on his wife, Elaine Chao, really rubbed Sen. McConnell the wrong way,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team.
“Sen. McConnell is just looking forward,” Capito added. “He’s not really focused on that disagreement from the past. We all know where he’s at.
The Kentucky Republican sees a path back to the Senate majority through the red states of West Virginia, Ohio and Montana, races the party can win even with Trump leading the ticket. And while he’s not looking to influence the GOP presidential primary, he views the Senate and Senate races as under his control.
Asked about Trump this week, McConnell said, “My main goal and that of most of my colleagues is to try to get the Senate.” It was his second straight weekly dodge from Trump, the first being a deadpan response to the former president’s indictment: ‘I may have hit my head, but I didn’t hit that hard “, he said, referring to a recent concussion.
It’s vintage McConnell, and precisely the posture that made him the longest-serving Senate party leader of all time — even after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) issued the very first challenge in his place. of leader. But McConnell’s end to Trump carries some political risk: His conference, including Scott’s replacement as Senate campaign chairman, is starting to coalesce around the former president – who has 10 Senate endorsements , and more to come.
This means that if McConnell began to speak out against Trump, he would drive a wedge within the Senate GOP. He could also give fuel to Trump.
“I don’t think it generally makes sense to give President Trump a goal. He is able to set the base on fire in part by finding someone to attack, and the best way to avoid providing President Trump with ammunition is to remain silent,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah ), who opposes Trump’s 2024 candidacy. “He called him an old crow and Chief McConnell said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old crow. “”
McConnell has spent the past two years helping to build a GOP identity separate from Trump, blessing bipartisan deals on gun safety and infrastructure that have otherwise drawn the ire of conservatives and often the former president. -even. That bipartisan spirit of casual collaboration surprised senators from both parties, who were used to McConnell’s “grim reaper” persona of blocking Democrats and blocking judicial choices.
What McConnell won’t do, however, is tussle with the GOP frontrunner, whose nomination he clearly doesn’t want to win. Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), who supports Trump, said “Mitch is trying to pick his battles wisely.”
“He understands that the Trump drama is probably not helping the day-to-day business of the Senate,” Graham said of McConnell. “Any leader will have to make decisions that are not popular with his base.”
And while it may seem surprising, McConnell agrees with Trump’s endorsement by National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Steve Daines (R-Mont.); he even got a warning before Monday’s announcement.
Daines is close to the Trump family and plays a more interventionist role in the primaries than his predecessor, so even Senate Republicans who are fed up with the former president think Montanan’s move could ultimately help them get more candidates. eligible in their biggest races next year.
Still, a Trump nomination could make it harder to win the next tier of Senate races in the states Biden won in 2020: Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But after the 2022 debacle, Democrats secured a seat, the GOP leader and most of his colleagues are focused on ousting Manchin, as well as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), more than anything else. .
“The problem with Mitch is that he wants a majority in the Senate,” said a Republican senator who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. As for McConnell’s repeated parades of the former president, this senator recalled a McConnell mantra: “Just because a reporter asks a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.”
And given the volume and intensity of Trump’s attacks on McConnell, it’s reasonable to assume that McConnell’s endorsement probably wouldn’t go far in a Republican presidential primary anyway. It could even hurt his ability to secure a majority in the Senate, another confidant said: “He thinks his involvement in the presidential cycle makes it harder for candidates to win. No easier.
“The practical reality of winning the Senate is probably entirely separate from what happens in a presidential primary because of the map,” added this McConnell ally. “If Trump is the nominee, I don’t know what’s going on, but I can probably tell you he’s not going to lose West Virginia, Montana and Ohio.”
McConnell’s stance won’t necessarily earn him plaudits for the courage of anti-Trump Republicans or Democrats who were impressed by McConnell’s lucid and critical examination of Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has served with McConnell since 1997, said simply that it was “normal” for McConnell to remain silent on Trump.
“I hope he lends his voice to those who speak out against what Trump stands for,” Durbin said optimistically.
But it fits with the Majority Leader’s seven-term legacy: He wields political power where he can, to deny Democrats a Supreme Court seat or force a showdown over the debt ceiling, while usually not picking fights he can’t win. A tit for tat with Trump is politically untenable for McConnell.
That doesn’t mean he can be totally indifferent. If Trump were to endorse Mooney over Justice, it could complicate even McConnell’s best-laid plans.