As candidates refuse to disavow McConnell, Trump comes to terms with his grip on GOP
Donald Trump is facing weak support among Republicans for his calls to depose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and aides and allies say it's forcing the former President to confront new limitations on his influence over the party.
(CNN)Donald Trump is facing weak support among Republicans for his calls to depose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and aides and allies say it's forcing the former President to confront new limitations on his influence over the party.
In the 11 months that have passed since Trump first called for the Kentucky Republican to be ousted -- suggesting shortly after his second Senate impeachment trial ended that it was time for the "unsmiling political hack" to be voted out of office -- McConnell's authority among Senate Republicans has neither waned nor has he faced the onslaught of blistering attacks from GOP hopefuls that Trump has been pining for.
Most candidates who have nabbed Trump's endorsement have refused to declare war on McConnell, who remains a powerful fundraiser and influential party figure in his own right, while those who are still angling for the former President's support have also stopped short of staking out opposition to the powerful senator from Kentucky. Trump's ineffective attempt, thus far, to challenge the top Senate Republican has forced him to temper his criteria as he aims to be a kingmaker in this year's midterm elections, according to multiple people close to the former President who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity.
Some of his aides have warned him that requiring unequivocal opposition to McConnell to secure or maintain his support is incompatible with his broader objectives -- a warning that Trump himself appears to be considering. The former President has not rescinded his endorsements of candidates who have stopped short of opposing McConnell and previously earned Trump's support, and he continues to privately consider endorsements for other candidates who have openly mused about reelecting McConnell if they make it into the Senate, according to a person familiar with Trump's thinking.
"In working for Trump for a while now, this is going to be a litmus test for him. But at the end of the day, whether a candidate says he won't vote for McConnell as leader or is generally critical of current party leadership is likely to be considered one and the same," said one Trump adviser.
The modified condition comes as numerous Senate Republican hopefuls who have cozied up to Trump in pursuit of his endorsement have either sidestepped questions about McConnell altogether or declined to rule out supporting his reelection as leader if they make it through their primaries and the general election.
In the Alabama Senate primary, where Trump has endorsed ultraconservative Congressman Mo Brooks, a Brooks campaign aide said the candidate's position has not changed since he told Politico in early December that he would back McConnell for another two-year leadership term "if he's the most conservative."
In North Carolina, Trump's preferred candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, has declined to answer questions about McConnell's leadership abilities. Budd campaign spokesman Jonathan Felts pointed to a statement he made last month that artfully dodged any criticism of McConnell by saying the congressman's "only thought on future leadership elections is that we want to do our part to ensure that the Republican leader is the majority leader."
"We've been pretty consistent on day one on that front," Felts said.
Across several other primaries, Republican candidates have also ignored Trump's entreaties for McConnell's ouster. Straddling a desire to earn the former President's support without jeopardizing potential assistance from the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund later on, they have limited their criticism to veiled barbs at the "establishment" or refuse to even answer questions about McConnell.
In the Senate primary in Ohio, for example, where four candidates are jockeying for Trump's endorsement, no one has outright said they would decline to reelect McConnell to his leadership post if elected. Candidates Josh Mandel and Jane Timken have danced around such questions, while J.D. Vance has described the Kentucky Republican as "a little out of touch with the base" but also stopped short of saying he would oppose him for leadership.
"Look, man, I've been the only person in the Ohio Senate race who has actually been willing to criticize leadership ... but I do think we've got a ground up problem as much as we've got a top down," Vance told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon during an appearance on his podcast last Thursday.
One Trump adviser who requested anonymity for fear of retribution said the Ohio primary "proves that McConnell is impenetrable," adding that it is "a waste of time for Trump to be channeling all of his anger towards McConnell, who shares his goal of winning back the Senate."
"You have four candidates who would seemingly do anything for [Trump's] endorsement and yet not one of them is willing to stand up and say, 'It's time for McConnell to go.' That says a lot about McConnell's survivability and it also shows that there are limitations to President Trump's influence," the adviser said.
So far, only two high-profile Senate Republican candidates have sided with Trump in his battle against the senator: ex-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who has accused McConnell of "working against President Trump and the MAGA movement," and Alaska US Senate hopeful Kelly Tshibaka, who definitively ruled out supporting McConnell as leader in a statement last month. CNN reached out to a dozen other Senate GOP hopefuls who are running as pro-Trump candidates to see where they stand on McConnell and heard back from only three, all of whom declined to comment.
Greitens, who is hoping Republican primary voters will look past the allegations of sexual assault and campaign finance misconduct that led to his resignation as governor in 2018, said it would be difficult for McConnell to redeem himself in his eyes unless he backed "full forensic audits" of the 2020 election in a handful of battleground states where Trump has erroneously claimed that widespread fraud occurred.
"This is a very hard call that US senators are going to make," he said of supporting McConnell in an interview with CNN.
A statement from Arizona US Senate candidate Blake Masters' campaign underscored how difficult the situation has become for Republican hopefuls who wish to earn Trump's endorsement without drawing McConnell's ire. "Blake will only vote for leadership that is serious about going on offense and actually legislating an America First agenda. He'll meet with anyone running for leader, including Mitch McConnell, and will vote for whoever is most serious about not just stopping the left's agenda, but also advancing our own," the statement read.
At least one Senate candidate who was recruited and endorsed by Trump has also received McConnell's backing and is not expected to turn against the Senate minority leader, according to a person close to his campaign. Georgia's Herschel Walker, the retired NFL running back who is challenging Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, was endorsed by Trump last September after the former President urged him to enter the race and "is considered a reasonable exception" to his litmus test on McConnell, according to a person close to Trump. McConnell endorsed Walker in late October, describing him as "the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock and help us take back the Senate."
'He's not like Pelosi'
Some of Trump's allies said his calls for McConnell's ouster stem from a personal vendetta against the Republican leader and therefore they doubt that he will religiously enforce a litmus test against GOP candidates who decline to oppose McConnell but otherwise fully embrace the former President and his agenda.
They consider this a relief, noting that not all GOP voters share Trump's frustration with the minority leader and most Republican candidates who make it beyond primaries will need institutional support, like that of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, to defeat their Democratic opponents.
"There are still a lot of folks who respect McConnell in the party. McConnell is not where Trump thinks he is among the GOP base. The party as a whole doesn't all hate him. He's not like [Democratic House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi," said a former Trump campaign official.
Another person close to the 45th President suggested that where Trump sees "a broken old crow, other Republicans see a dedicated public servant who helped put three conservatives on the Supreme Court and got a massive tax cut through Congress" (Trump has nicknamed McConnell "old crow" in numerous statements condemning the minority leader).
"Mitch McConnell did a great job getting President Trump's judges into the judicial branch. That was a major accomplishment of the Trump administration and McConnell did a good job helping him," said Greitens. "I do think, though, when you look at the totality of his record, he's been a disaster for the America First movement."
The former Trump campaign official said the main difference between Trump and McConnell is that the Kentucky Republican is "self-aware enough to recognize that some candidates will have to make him a target in order to shore up the base and he won't take it personally."
"McConnell understands politics better than most and knows that folks are going to come after him a bit because attacking the permanent Washington political class is good politics in certain parts of the country," the official said.
There is little doubt that candidates who are vying for Trump's endorsement in competitive primaries would boost their chances of securing it if they declared their opposition to McConnell once and for all, but there is also little doubt that doing so could cost them critical donor support and the financial backing of groups like Senate Leadership Fund and the National Senatorial Campaign Committee post-primary. Senate Leadership Fund and another McConnell-linked group known as American Crossroads spent a combined $462 million in the 2020 cycle and are expected to make significant investments in this midterm cycle as well.
One adviser to a high-profile GOP Senate candidate told CNN that he and other campaign operatives he knows are afraid of losing out on support from McConnell's political machine and believe their candidates can win their primaries without going after the minority leader.
"Mitch McConnell has been a player in Republican politics for decades. He has contacts, donor relationships and alliances that simply cannot be rivaled and we have to ask ourselves if it's really worth pissing off a guy like that when there are other things we can do, and have been doing, to prove that we will advance an America First agenda with or without McConnell's help," the campaign aide said.
An escalating feud
What began as an isolated confrontation last year after McConnell blamed Trump for the deadly US Capitol riot on January 6 has since evolved into a steady series of hostile attacks by the former President against the top Senate Republican.
Trump has torched McConnell over his support for President Joe Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which the Senate passed in August and Biden signed into law in mid-November. The former President has repeatedly slammed McConnell for supporting the massive infrastructure investment, which eluded Trump during his time in office, suggesting that the minority leader and other Republicans who got behind the legislation "should be ashamed of themselves." And Trump has criticized McConnell for cutting a deal with Senate Democrats to end a December standoff over increasing the federal government's debt limit.
"He has all the cards to win, but not the 'guts' to play them. Instead, he gives our country away, just like he did with the two Senate seats in Georgia, and the presidency itself," Trump charged in a statement last month.
Trump's attacks on McConnell escalated last fall, when he began discussing ways to dethrone the GOP leader with other Republican senators and some of his top allies, according to a person involved in the effort, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in September. But Trump struggled to find much support for the move inside the upper chamber, this person said.
"How this guy can stay as Leader is beyond comprehension -- this is coming not only from me, but from virtually everyone in the Republican Party," Trump nevertheless claimed in a December statement.