Some see a fight bubbling up for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But despite Trump calling McConnell names like “old crow,” don’t believe that this feud is fundamentally personal.
Rather, longtime McConnell watchers suggest the Kentuckian’s motivations are just what we learned in The Godfather: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”
After all, McConnell is well aware that Trump’s antics after the election—even before Jan. 6—almost certainly handed Democrats the two seats they needed in the Georgia runoff elections to assume control of the chamber. This in a state where Democrats had not won a Senate seat in 20 years, since Zell Miller’s victory in 2000.
As the incomparable Jonathan Martin wrote in Monday’s New York Times, “In conversations with senators and would-be senators, Mr. McConnell is blunt about the damage he believes Mr. Trump has done to the G.O.P., according to those who have spoken to him. Privately, he has declared he won’t let unelectable ‘goofballs’ win Republican primaries.”
There is little if anything that is more important to McConnell than Republicans winning and holding the Senate, perhaps not even University of Louisville basketball. When it was in the Republican Senate majority’s best interests, if it helped get more conservatives on the federal bench, he backed Trump. If it’s not in their best interests, he won’t. It’s not driven by ego or pique.
If the data showed that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would have had the best chance of beating freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, then Ducey is who McConnell would try to entice into the race, no matter that Ducey is one of Trump’s many sworn enemies.
Republican polling is said to show Trump’s numbers are “upside-down” by double digits in about half of the states with top-tier Senate races, meaning that the former president’s unfavorable ratings among voters are higher than his favorable. In each of these states, his numbers are as bad or worse than President Biden’s.
Whichever party the 2022 midterm elections are ultimately about will lose. If the election is about Biden and what the Democratic majorities did or didn’t do, they will lose. But if the election is about Trump, or about Republican candidates (the kind I refer to as “exotic;” McConnell as “goofballs”) then this election will turn out very badly for the GOP. For an example, look to Senate candidate Jim Lamon in Arizona. His campaign ad, prepared to run around the Superbowl, featured him shooting at Kelly in a mock gunfight. (Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot at a constituent event.) It was a textbook case of a candidate with more dollars than sense.
This is precisely what happened in the tea-party days of 2010 and 2012. Republicans came up short of a Senate majority in each of those years, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with “goofball” candidates in Delaware and Nevada in the former year, and in Indiana and Missouri in the latter. One might say that the base nominated candidates based on their glands than their brains. (God knows Democrats have done that on occasion as well.)
Some have made note of McConnell’s endorsement of University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker’s bid to upset Warnock in Georgia. Unquestionably Walker has a problematic past, but Republican insiders privately say that Walker has turned out to be a “disciplined and focused candidate” and “had strengths that immediately put him in a competitive position against Warnock. The RealClearPolitics average of four public polls testing the matchup put Walker ahead by a point, 48 to 47 percent. Whether that holds or not remains to be seen, but not that many challengers effectively start off dead even against incumbents, and clearly able to raise tons of money.
McConnell may see that his timing has come. Take a look at a key question in the latest NBC News survey, compared with the findings of NBC/Wall Street Journal polling. In the 10 NBC/WSJ polls taken in 2019 and 2020, while Trump was still president, respondents were asked: “Do you consider yourself more of a supporter of Donald Trump, or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?” An average of 49 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican chose allegiance to Trump, compared to just 41 percent for the party. In five NBC/WSJ and NBC polls taken since Trump left office, the party came out ahead by 8 points, 50 to 42 percent. In the January NBC News poll, the GOP had a 20-point lead, 56 to 36 percent.
The bottom line is that there is a struggle going on within the Republican Party with very high stakes. But there are a number of angles that one can look at this question, it is important to look at more than just one. McConnell surely is.
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