WASHINGTON — If Republicans flounder in their effort to recapture the U.S. Senate less than two months from now, an inevitable blame game will commence over who’s most responsible for their midterm belly flop.
GOP political professionals stand ready to point at Donald Trump, who deposited primary endorsements in six of the most competitive general election contests. But the former president’s MAGA base will likely rebel against such a judgment and reach for other scapegoats. And a relatively innocuous comment made by Mitch McConnell about candidate quality will hand Trump and his backers just enough ammunition to try to shift blame onto the Kentuckian, who remains unpopular with the Republican base across the country.
McConnell, who loathes to litigate party fights in public, could be somewhat shielded by boiling hostility toward Rick Scott, the Floridian who helms the National Republican Senatorial Committee and harbors presidential ambitions.
“If McConnell was chairman of the senatorial committee, we’d have better nominees … because he would’ve intervened in those places,” said Charlie Black, a longtime Washington Republican operator who thinks the Senate GOP leader would have chosen to pick favorites in a host of competitive primaries this year. Scott, who controls the party’s campaign purse strings, adhered to a policy of neutrality.
Still, McConnell still has tacit influence over the largest Republican super PAC — the Senate Leadership Fund — which will be key to keeping underfunded candidates within striking distance over the final eight weeks through the deployment of tens of millions of dollars in advertising power.
Super PACs operate independently by law, but McConnell’s public comments and private meetings can send handy cues to his outside allies on where to allocate resources. For instance, the Senate Leadership Fund targeted primaries in Alabama and Missouri, where anti-McConnell candidates were running and defeated.
But on Tuesday night, McConnell’s PAC did not get its desired outcome, as Don Bolduc captured the GOP nomination for Senate in New Hampshire over establishment choice Chuck Morse. Bolduc has denied Trump lost the 2020 election, described Confederate statues as “symbols of hope” and claimed Bill Gates wants to implant people with microchips.
Bolduc begins his race against first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan as an underdog, and it’s unclear whether McConnell and his allies will financially bolster him. Trump, so far, hasn’t endorsed Bolduc.
“McConnell’s PAC has got $120 million on hand still to spend. We’re not going to lose it because of money,” Black said. “Trump’s probably going to get some blame.”
‘It’s Trump’s fault’
Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters in Arizona and Adam Laxalt in Nevada.
Walker, a former NFL star, has struggled to state policy positions in routine interviews. Republicans have complained about Vance’s work ethic and are now pouring tens of millions of dollars into a red state that Trump easily carried.
Oz is still recovering from a battering primary where he was tagged for more liberal views he espoused as a television host and for holding Turkish citizenship. And the state party chair in Arizona sent a letter to McConnell this week pleading for him to “join our team” and help Masters, warning, “We are running out of time.”
McConnell did not express public preferences in any race, but his early sunny view of the 50-50 Senate map dimmed throughout the spring and summer, leading to his declaration in August that the House was more likely to flip into Republican hands than the Senate, due to candidate quality.
Trump and Scott moved quickly to repudiate McConnell’s remarks with Trump calling him “a negative for the party.”
But GOP operatives note it’s McConnell and his allies who have been forced to bail out struggling Trump-stamped nominees.
“I firmly believe, if we don’t take the Senate back, it’s Trump’s fault,” said Jim Dornan, a Republican operative who has managed numerous Senate and congressional campaigns.
“Our leadership got way too cocky, way too early. That’s not a slam at Mitch. Mitch is coming in and trying to save some of these guys.”
Doug Heye, a former staffer for the Republican National Committee, also said Trump deserves the most blame for a Senate fumble.
“He’s backed so many bad and first-time candidates because of their allegiance to him, who either can’t win or require massive influxes of cash — from Mitch,” said Heye, adding that Trump’s own legal problems distract voters from core issues that have sunk President Biden’s popularity, like inflation and crime. “Meanwhile, while Trump is hoarding money, McConnell is spending it … McConnell was right about candidate quality.”
‘Losing his grip’
McConnell has a well-trained eye for winning candidates, but he may be most singularly responsible for the issue that transformed this midterm’s atmosphere: abortion rights.
Last spring, McConnell boasted that his single biggest accomplishment was blocking former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court selection in 2016, paving the way for Trump to appoint three new conservative justices during his term.
About a month after McConnell made those comments, the McConnell-stamped Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, unleashing a gusher of anger and energy among Democratic voters, particularly women.
McConnell doesn’t want abortion to be the focal point of the midterms as early voting begins in the coming weeks. He continues to stay laser-focused hammering Democrats on how inflation is costing families more money.
But some in his party have other ideas.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a bill that would ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks. McConnell said his members prefer the issue be handled on a state-by-state basis, pouring cold water on the legislation’s prospects.
But it was another example of McConnell being challenged by a member of his party and losing the unified discipline he’s revered for.
“Graham’s decision to go rogue shows how McConnell is losing grip on the GOP Senate conference in more ways than one: He’s got Rick Scott proposing policy ideas, Trump propping up candidates and now Graham,” tweeted columnist Eric Michael Garcia.