A fight for control of the Senate is raging across the country, but viewers who tuned in to the Republican National Convention this week could be forgiven if they did not realize it.
In a 2½-minute taped address Thursday night, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged voters to back Republican senators as a “firewall” against Democrats. But other than those remarks on the convention’s closing night, vulnerable Republican senators battling to hang onto their party’s majority were almost absent from the stage.
One who did appear in prime time, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, focused on a windstorm that hit her state without even mentioning that she was running for reelection or that control of the Senate — crucial to the next president — was on the ballot.
And when Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader responsible for retaking control of the House, spoke early Thursday evening in his own taped remarks, he said nothing about his party’s efforts to reclaim the majority, an endeavor that most now privately concede is unlikely to succeed. The only candidate he mentioned was President Donald Trump.
The lack of attention to the fight for Congress underscored just how much the convention was singularly about Trump. It also highlighted the double-edged sword the president presents for threatened Republican incumbents. On the one hand, they need all the party support — including from Trump’s ardent backers — that they can muster to hold onto their seats in November, but they also cannot risk alienating the independent and more moderate voters who are potentially turned off by the president.
“This is Donald Trump’s show, not the GOP’s,” Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican Party and Senate race strategist, said of the convention. “So it is not terribly surprising that you haven’t seen more House or Senate members or candidates — especially those in swing states and districts where their message may not be enthusiastically pro-Trump enough, or the candidate would rather be somewhere else.”
There were questions about whether McConnell, who has been the president’s congressional right hand, would even speak at the convention. Aides first said he would not be appearing but quickly reversed course and announced he would be giving the taped speech that was broadcast Thursday.
“I am immensely proud of the work the Republican Senate has done,” said McConnell, who faces his own reelection threat from Amy McGrath, a Democrat.
“The stakes have never been higher,” he added, portraying himself as a guardian of the interests of Middle America against Democratic congressional leadership from the coasts. “Which is why I’m asking you to support Republican Senate candidates across the country and reelect my friend President Donald Trump.”
McCarthy, whom Trump refers to as “my Kevin” and who had always planned to play a role at the party gathering, delivered a gauzy tribute to the president. Lawmakers in both parties agree the House is likely safely in Democratic hands, but in an upbeat prepared video statement, the closest McCarthy got to mentioning the congressional battlefield was when he smeared Democrats as “socialist” and out to “destroy our economy.”
Other Republican incumbents provided their own short taped messages for the convention, but they aired before most networks began showing the proceedings on television. In one such segment, the party showcased its full lineup of Senate contenders in a video produced in the style of player introductions in televised football games.
“We will win because we must win,” said the video, which concluded with a shot of McConnell after showing black-and-white footage of John James, the party’s Senate challenger in Michigan who is an Army veteran, working out. “We must hold the line.”
The absence of some of the more prominent Senate voices did not go unnoticed. Asked this week why he was not speaking at the convention, Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, told reporters in South Carolina that he would be “campaigning and trying to get myself reelected” instead but would watch Trump’s remarks from the White House on Thursday.
Polls suggest Graham is in a tighter-than-expected race to keep what should be a safe Republican seat.
“I get to speak a lot,” Graham said. “I don’t think anybody will say Lindsey Graham’s been denied a chance to have his say.”
Oppportunities to shine
By their nature, presidential nominating conventions are always more focused on the top of the ticket rather than the legions of House and Senate candidates fighting to provide the governing majorities that can make their agendas possible. But in a year in which campaigns across the country have been relegated to Zoom calls and small in-person gatherings and candidates have struggled to draw the attention of pandemic-weary Americans to their campaigns, a party convention broadcast during prime time for four consecutive nights represented on all the major networks represented an unmatched opportunity to shine a spotlight on crucial races.
Republicans trying to hold onto seats in swing states where Trump could pull them down in the polls but is too popular to simply rebuke found themselves dancing awkwardly around the edges of the festivities — none more so than Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who trails his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, in most public polls and whose home state hosted the first day of convention proceedings.
When Trump arrived in Charlotte on Monday as his party formally renominated him, Tillis met with small-business owners nearby instead and never greeted the president, prompting puzzled headlines. But by Thursday, he had traveled to Washington and was sitting on the White House lawn to cheer on Trump as he addressed the nation in an extraordinary political spectacle.
Party officials cautioned not to read too much into the low profile of Republican candidates at the virtual convention given the unique nature of the event. They said that ultimately the televised testimonials in support of the president would accrue to the benefit of candidates down the ballot. During a virtual event sponsored by Politico, Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged that multiple races were close but predicted that Republicans would hold the Senate.
“I feel really strong about our starting position going into the final stretch,” he said.
Another Republican official noted that Democratic Senate contenders were not prominent at last week’s Democratic convention either.
Indeed, leading House and Senate candidates did not receive star billing at that convention, as party officials largely eschewed the key group of candidates that could secure majorities in favor of party veterans and younger upstarts with more appeal to the news media.
Sara Gideon, who is challenging Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, gave only a brief introduction from the state’s windswept coast to a performance by musician Maggie Rogers. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, one of the few Democrats facing a significant challenge, had a few seconds on air representing his home state in the roll call of states formally nominating Joe Biden for the presidency.
Some of the Democratic Senate candidates were even less conspicuous than at the party’s 2016 convention in Philadelphia, when they were not even on the ballot.
Jaime Harrison, a Democrat trying to upset Graham in South Carolina, had his own speaking slot in 2016. So did Mark Kelly, the former astronaut leading Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, and John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado and presidential candidate who holds an edge over Sen. Cory Gardner. This time, Harrison appeared only to cast his state’s delegate votes for Biden. Kelly and Hickenlooper were not seen at all.
But with the Republican festivities so devoted to Trump, Democrats seemed to place more emphasis on showcasing Senate partners for Biden should he be elected. They gave prominent speaking slots to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, head of the party’s Senate campaign effort. Schumer emphasized how a united Democratic majority was essential to bringing “bold and dramatic change.”
“If we’re going to win this battle for the soul of our nation,” he said, “Joe can’t do it alone.”