The crumbled alliance between Trump and McConnell, who worked hand-in-glove on political and legislative strategy for four years, has finally brought the GOP to the reckoning that never happened after the 2016 election. Trump may take another swipe at McConnell in the coming days at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But McConnell probably won’t hear it: He is not expected to speak at CPAC, according to Republican sources. McConnell still hasn’t spoken to Trump in more than two months.
And interviews with nearly a dozen Senate Republicans on Monday night make clear that it will take more than a war of words with Trump to knock McConnell off his perch. Both Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), the two most likely successors to McConnell at the moment, back him vocally.
“Sen. McConnell’s been the best Republican leader since I’ve been here. He understands this place better than anybody,” Cornyn said. “I believe he enjoys the overwhelming support of the conference.”
Asked if he agreed with McConnell’s criticisms of Trump, Cornyn said: “I’m looking forward to the day we can move on to other things.” He said he had no plans to visit Trump in Florida, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have done in recent days.
Many senators have little interest in refereeing McConnell’s seething comments about Trump’s “dereliction of duty” during last month’s insurrection and Trump’s brutal assessment of McConnell’s “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality.” But few share the assessment by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Graham that McConnell’s criticism of Trump has become a political anchor weighing on the GOP.
“Republicans have a big tent,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). “There’s strength in having robust discussions. There’s strength in having differences of opinion. And politicians are always going to have back-and-forth.”
“I support [McConnell]. I support the outsider part of the party, as well,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “The biggest disaster would be if we split in some fashion. It’s exactly what the Democrats would be looking for. And most of us are going to let time be our friend.”
For all the fanfare that the Trump-McConnell battle has received over the past two weeks, the ultimate referendum on who will guide the party won’t come for at least a year, until GOP Senate primaries begin unfolding in earnest. And McConnell’s willingness to wade into GOP primaries this cycle against Trump-backed candidates he sees as unelectable presages brutal internecine battles over control of the Senate on the Republican side.
In his two-page statement bashing McConnell, Trump said that “our America First agenda is a winner, not McConnell’s Beltway First agenda.” In an interview this month, McConnell said that the litmus test in primaries is simple: Who can win general elections?
“The issue is not whether you do or don’t like Donald Trump. The issue is: Can you win in November?” McConnell said.
Since McConnell was just reelected unanimously as GOP leader in November, he won’t face a leadership campaign until after the next election. He’s won previous leadership races with no dissent, despite occasional grumbling from senators like Johnson, who was essentially abandoned by the national party in his 2016 reelection race.
If McConnell is as toxic among Republican voters as Trump’s loyalists claim, it would be most obvious in deep-red states. But two GOP senators up for reelection in conservative states, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho, both said they still support McConnell as GOP leader on Monday.
“People are going to have differences of opinion on different things at different times. That’s just drama,” Lankford said. “A year ago, everybody was saying what a great tactician Mitch was.”
The Senate is not like the House; it’s less factionalized and there’s no organized opposition within the Senate GOP to McConnell as leader. Johnson said McConnell’s leadership position is “not even a question on the table.”
“When the leader speaks — sure he can speak for himself — but he also has to realize that what he says is going to reflect on the conference,” Johnson said. “I didn’t appreciate what he said.”
“I’m not aware of any leadership challenge to him. I don’t know of any,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who did not directly say he supports McConnell and suggested GOP voters have chosen the party’s direction already. “For voters, there is no civil war. They’ve made their choices. They don’t want to go back to an early time in the party.”
McConnell just won reelection to a six-year term. And if he can hang on for two more years, he can match former Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) as the longest-serving Senate party leader of all time.
But even more important is whether McConnell will edge out Chuck Schumer as majority leader and be able to put back some constraints on Biden’s presidency. It looked like McConnell had the majority secured before Georgia’s special elections, and it’s clear he didn’t exactly appreciate Trump’s repeated attacks on the electoral process and false claims of mass voter fraud that dominated that race.
“One of my favorite sayings about politics is, winners make policy and losers go home. The reason we may well pass a $1.9 trillion [coronavirus bill] … is because we lost the Senate,” McConnell said in the interview this month. “And the reason we lost, as everyone knows, is there was so much confusion down there about whether even voting made a difference that it undercut us.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.