Nobody wants to be on Team McConnell.
Heading into the 2018 elections, only one Republican Senate candidate nationwide has pledged unequivocally to back Mitch McConnell as majority leader. Most Republicans facing competitive primaries are hemming and hawing, admiring McConnell’s political savvy and fundraising apparatus — but also looking warily at his sinking approval ratings both with Republicans and the broader electorate.
Even in some of the red and purple states represented by Democratic senators where McConnell is hoping to pad his majority — places like Missouri, Michigan and Wisconsin — the leading candidates are dodging questions about McConnell’s leadership or threatening to oppose him if the GOP Congress doesn’t deliver on the party’s legislative priorities in the coming months.
A few Senate candidates are outright spurning him, aligning themselves with former White House strategist Steve Bannon. Both Democrats and Republicans think President Donald Trump has simultaneously elevated McConnell in importance and blamed him for the slow pace of Republican legislating, including the failure to repeal Obamacare. The result is a GOP Senate leader few candidates want to publicly align with, even if they’re likely to support him if they arrive in Washington.
Corey Stewart, the Trump-aligned local elected official in Virginia who narrowly lost this year’s GOP primary for governor and is now challenging Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, said he encountered little backing for McConnell while traveling the state.
“The guy’s toxic,” said Stewart, who has courted Bannon’s support. “There’s no support for him, even among the establishment. He hasn’t been able to pass the president’s agenda.”
Most other GOP Senate candidates are more circumspect, acknowledging voters’ frustrations with Washington while cautious not to antagonize McConnell and his well-funded political operation.
“If he can get health care, immigration, tax reform done, terrific,” Michigan businessman Sandy Pensler told the Detroit News when he launched his campaign earlier this week. “Otherwise … he shouldn’t be the leader. It’s a results-driven analysis for me. So far he hasn’t gotten it done.”
McConnell’s political allies insist they’ve seen all this before, and they are ready to fight it. Past insurgent Republican campaigns have run television ads bashing McConnell, only to lose in GOP primaries anyway. Candidates distancing themselves from party leaders in Washington, they argue, is now standard practice and smart politics.
Bannon and his allies instead see evidence of McConnell’s ineffectiveness and unpopularity.
“Why are Republicans candidates tweeting out selfies with Steve Bannon, while at the same time doing everything they can to publicly distance themselves from McConnell?” Andy Surabian, a top aide to Bannon, asked rhetorically. “Because they know that McConnell is an albatross, not only in GOP primaries, but more importantly in general elections.”
Former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes dismissed conversations about the leader’s future as a “fun Beltway-journalist story written every single election cycle” and noted McConnell has won six leadership elections unanimously.
“For as long as Mitch McConnell has been Republican leader, our candidates have been counseled not to get bogged down in Washington leadership questions,” Holmes said. “The simple reality is that if a candidate is throwing endorsements around presuming their own election, they’re doing it wrong. I’m not aware of a single senator of either party who was elected for supporting leadership, and I know there hasn’t been a candidate elected by opposing Mitch McConnell.”
McConnell himself has given candidates permission to do what they need to do to win. “I’m not going to be on the ballot in any of these states, and I don’t think that the candidates who are running need to take a position on me,” McConnell said on “Fox and Friends” last month.
Most GOP candidates haven’t outright declared opposition to McConnell, save Stewart, former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward and perennial Nevada candidate Danny Tarkanian, who both started their races challenging GOP incumbents. (Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced last month he won’t seek a second term in the chamber, saying, “I could not win in a Republican primary” because of his criticisms of Trump.)
Instead, most GOP Senate candidates are on the defensive, or framing their support for McConnell as conditional. Last month, Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir told a local radio show, “Mitch McConnell isn’t getting the job done. He does need to go.”
But the next day, on a different radio show, she had a slightly softer take. “I guess I’m not focused on hypothetical leadership races a year from now,” she said. “[Y]ou know, if Mitch isn’t getting the job done, he needs to go. But at the same time, look at who he is dealing with. We need to get extra, conservative, reliable, Republican voters in there.”
Vukmir’s opponent, businessman and veteran Kevin Nicholson, originally said he would support McConnell but has since won Bannon’s endorsement and now supports “new leadership” for Senate Republicans. Wisconsin GOP operatives are now speculating whether McConnell’s allies may spend on Vukmir’s behalf before the August 2018 primary.
Other candidates, even if they aren’t outright calling for McConnell’s ouster, aren’t heaping praise on the chamber they seek to join. Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, aiming to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker, called the Senate “dysfunctional” and “enough to drive you nuts.”
Missouri state Attorney General Josh Hawley, widely considered the GOP’s top Senate recruit so far and someone who’s been claimed by both establishment operatives and Bannon-aligned Republicans, has also ducked questions on whether he’ll support McConnell. A spokesman told the Kansas City Star last month that Hawley “is not willing to tolerate the failure of the D.C. establishment any longer” but declined to address McConnell specifically.
The special Senate election in Alabama may have been the first test of McConnell’s position in a GOP primary. Interim Sen. Luther Strange — backed by Trump and McConnell — was defeated by former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, whose sexual molestation scandal has threatened a GOP-held seat.
Senate Leadership Fund — the big-spending super PAC controlled by McConnell’s allies — cited Trump’s criticism of the Republican Congress, not McConnell’s own political standing, as a reason establishment candidates would struggle in 2018.
“The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the bogeyman for conservative GOP primary voter,” wrote Steven Law, the group’s president, adding: “This narrative is driven by Trump himself, and it resonates with primary voters who believe the Republican Congress ‘isn’t doing enough’ (as we frequently heard in focus groups) to advance the president’s agenda.”
In the past, Senate Leadership Fund has backed leadership-aligned Republicans in primaries. In 2016, the PAC helped lift now-Sen. Todd Young to a GOP primary victory over Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who ran ads attacking Young as a McConnell puppet. In total, the group spent $86 million in independent expenditures in the 2016 cycle.
The only candidate explicitly backing McConnell this cycle is West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is locked in a primary battle with the state’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey. But despite the support for McConnell, Jenkins, a two-term congressman, is casting Morrisey as the creature of Washington; Morrisey’s wife, Denise Henry Morrisey, is a Washington lobbyist.
McConnell’s approval ratings have tanked over the past year. Democratic and Republican polls have found McConnell deeply unpopular with GOP primary electorates. A September survey from the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC showed McConnell with just a 17 percent approval rating among likely Arizona GOP primary voters in 2018, and a private GOP exit poll in Alabama found just 25 percent of Alabama primary runoff voters said McConnell’s support for Strange made it more likely for them to vote for him, while 55 percent said it made them less likely.
The general election picture is more muddled. The latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found just 23 percent of registered voters had a favorable opinion of McConnell, compared to 41 percent with an unfavorable opinion, which matches other public polls. Those numbers are worse than those for Pelosi, House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
But Democrats are unsure if they can turn him into a powerful enough symbol of a dysfunctional Washington to turn off swing voters. Strategists in both parties note it took years and tens of millions of dollars in television ads for Republicans to turn Pelosi into an effective boogeyman.
“There are several states and districts that voted for Trump where the president’s numbers remain about even, but Republicans in Congress are far less popular than Democrats in Congress,” said Matt Canter, a pollster at Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm. “Leveraging McConnell and Ryan in these areas could be very effective.”
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