So when Justice entered the Senate race on Thursday, he highlighted the crux of McConnell’s 2024 strategy. After several Trump-inspired candidates fell short last fall and denied the GOP a majority, the Republican of Kentucky hopes to run a Senate campaign plan that is divorced from the presidential race. That means candidates who can win even with the former president back on the ballot next year.
McConnell’s tactic underscores the reality that, with the presidential primaries still heating up, he is probably Trump’s biggest foil in the GOP right now. He has not changed his mind about Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election, according to confidants, and believes that Trump’s nomination complicates the task of defeating Joe Biden next year.
But McConnell, true to form, isn’t letting emotion or his short-sightedness for Trump get in the way of the task at hand. The Senate Republican leader doesn’t talk about Trump in public and does very little in private.
This despite Trump ruthlessly persecuting McConnell and unleashing racist attacks on his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. And despite the fact that McConnell criticized Trump as «practically and morally responsible» for the riots on January 6 at the Capitol.
“McConnell spoke very clearly about… his huge disagreements with the [former] president. And I think the personal attacks on his wife, Elaine Chao, have really upset Sen. McConnell,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team.
“Sen. McConnell is just looking forward,» Capito added. “He’s not really focused on that disagreement from the past. We all know where he stands.»
The Kentucky Republican sees a path back to a majority in the Senate through the red states of West Virginia, Ohio and Montana, races the party can win even with Trump at the top of the ticket. And while he doesn’t seek to influence the GOP presidential primaries, he views the Senate and Senate races as his control.
When asked about Trump this week, McConnell said: «My main focus and the main focus of most of my colleagues is trying to get to the Senate.» It was his second consecutive weekly evasion of Trump, the first being a deadpan response to the former president’s accusation: «I may have hit my head, but I didn’t hit it that hard,» he said, referring to a recent concussion.
It’s classic McConnell, and precisely the stance that made him the longest-serving Senate party leader of all time, even after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) mounted the first challenge to his post. of leadership. But McConnell’s end of Trump carries some political risk: His conference, including Scott’s replacement as Senate campaign chairman, is beginning to coalesce around the former president, who has 10 Senate endorsements, with more to come. .
That means if McConnell were to start speaking out against Trump, he would be driving a wedge within the Senate Republican Party. He could also fuel Trump.
“I don’t think, overall, it makes sense to give President Trump a target. You can fire up the base in part by finding someone to attack, and the best way to avoid providing President Trump with ammunition is to stay quiet,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who opposes Trump’s 2024 bid. «He called it an old crow and frontman McConnell said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old crow.'»
McConnell spent the last two years helping build a Republican identity separate from Trump, blessing bipartisan deals on security and weapons infrastructure that otherwise drew the ire of conservatives and often the former president himself. That occasionally collaborative bipartisan ethos surprised senators from both parties, who were used to McConnell’s «grim» persona blocking Democrats and stymieing judicial picks.
What McConnell won’t do, however, is fight the GOP frontrunner, whom he clearly doesn’t want to win the nomination. Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), who supports Trump, said «Mitch is trying to pick his battles wisely.»
“He understands that the Trump drama is probably not going to help the day-to-day business of the Senate,” Graham said of McConnell. «Any leader is going to have to make some decisions that are not popular with his base.»
And while it may seem surprising, McConnell is fine that Senate Republican National Committee Chairman Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is endorsing Trump; he even received notice before Monday’s announcement.
Daines is close to the Trump family and has a more interventionist role in the primaries than his predecessor, so even Senate Republicans who are weary of the former president believe the Montana measure could help them land more eligible candidates in their elections. bigger races next year.
Still, a Trump nomination could complicate the task of winning the next tier of Senate races in the states Biden won in 2020: Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But after the 2022 debacle gave Democrats a seat, the GOP leader and most of his colleagues are focused on ousting Manchin, as well as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown. (D-Ohio), more than anything else. .
“The thing about Mitch is that he wants a majority in the Senate,” said a Republican senator who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. As for McConnell’s repeated stops at the former president, this senator recalled a McConnell mantra: «Just because a reporter asks a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.»
And given the volume and intensity of Trump’s attacks on McConnell, it’s reasonable to assume that McConnell’s endorsement probably wouldn’t go very far in a Republican presidential primary anyway. It could even hurt his ability to win a majority in the Senate, another confidant said: “He thinks getting involved in the presidential cycle makes it harder for candidates to win. Not easier.
“The practical reality of winning the Senate is probably completely divorced from what happens in a presidential primary because of the map,” this McConnell ally added. «If Trump is the nominee, I don’t know what happens, but I can probably tell you that he won’t lose West Virginia, Montana and Ohio.»
McConnell’s position will not necessarily earn him the applause for his courage from anti-Trump Republicans or Democrats who were impressed with McConnell’s clear and critical review of Trump’s conduct on January 6. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has served with McConnell since 1997, simply said that it is «normal» for McConnell to keep quiet about Trump.
“I hope he will lend his voice to those who denounce what Trump stands for,” Durbin said optimistically.
But he’s trailing the majority leader’s seven-term legacy: Wielding political power where he can, to deny Democrats a Supreme Court seat or force a showdown over the debt ceiling, while generally not seeking fights you can’t win. An eye for an eye with Trump is politically untenable for McConnell.
That doesn’t mean you can be totally independent. If Trump were to side with Mooney over Justice, he could complicate even McConnell’s best plans.