Midterm Memo: Decoding Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is deliberate with his words, saying no more — and no less — than he believes circumstances require. And he often speaks in code.
So, when McConnell — or Cocaine Mitch, or Old Crow, or whatever you prefer to call him — recently divulged, publicly, apprehension about Republican prospects for winning Senate control in the midterm elections, I paid attention. The GOP is one seat shy of the Senate majority, and President Joe Biden’s job approval ratings are languishing just above 40%. In other words, with Labor Day just around the corner, 2022 fundamentals favor Republicans. Exactly what point was McConnell making, and whom exactly was he talking to?
But first, let’s examine what, exactly, the 80-year-old former and aspiring Senate majority leader said.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell told the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon in Florence, as reported by NBC News. “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”
McConnell’s conservative critics, among them allies and supporters of former President Donald Trump, went absolutely apoplectic.
They essentially accused the seventh-term senator of down-talking Republican chances of winning the Senate majority after two years in the minority and discouraging grassroots conservatives from turning out to vote on Nov. 8. “What was McConnell thinking? What in the world was he thinking?” wrote Mollie Hemingway, editor-in-chief of the Federalist. She accused McConnell of “unnecessarily ceding an incredibly winnable Senate to the Democrats three months before an election.”
“McTurtle isn’t interested in being a leader of anything except the GOP Caucus in the Senate. That includes being fine with being in the minority,” tweeted Ned Ryun, a top conservative populist operative and CEO of the activist group American Majority.
IS THE RED WAVE ALREADY CRASHING?
Now, look, maybe McConnell’s shtick has worn thin with some on the Right. And his strategic decisions are hardly beyond reproach. They can and should be questioned. But if you speak McConnell — and after 15 years covering the Senate’s No. 1-ranking Republican, I’d like to think I’m reasonably proficient — what he was saying with his eyebrow-raising comments was the opposite of what his critics charge. As I mentioned up top, McConnell is deliberate, and he often speaks in code.
In choosing to question publicly his party’s prospects for winning the Senate and to subtly, but unmistakably, take his nominees to the woodshed, the minority leader was communicating two distinctly different messages to two distinctly different groups.
To Republican donors, particularly the wealthy set who write big checks, McConnell was pleading for more resources to fund an effort that is up against an extremely flush Democratic Party, not to mention Democratic candidates who might end up raising more than they can realistically spend. To Republican Senate nominees, McConnell was issuing a warning not to presume a favorable political environment will paper over weak campaigns and carry them to victory.
But, but, but …
Some of McConnell’s conservative critics will say: We all know he would love to wash his hands of Trump (fact check: True). The former president has been pushing Senate Republicans for more than a year to oust the Kentuckian from conference leadership. Isn’t this McConnell’s ploy to get his revenge on Trump and prevent several candidates he endorsed in key primaries from advancing to the Senate, where they might oppose him for another term as leader, whether in the minority or majority?
From a certain vantage point, it’s a viable argument. Then again, let’s take a look at where McConnell’s super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund — run by some of his closest allies — is spending its money, $171.5 million so far, all of it essentially raised by the minority leader:
- Arizona, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed Blake Masters: $14.4 million
- Georgia, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker: $37.1 million
- Ohio, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed J.D. Vance: $28 million
- Nevada, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed Adam Laxalt: $15.1 million
- North Carolina, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd: $27.6 million
- Pennsylvania, where the Republican nominee is Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz: $34.1 million
- Wisconsin, where the Republican nominee is incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, a top Trump ally: $15.2 million
This doesn’t even account for the tens of millions being poured into Senate races by One Nation, the political nonprofit group affiliated with the Senate Leadership Fund. Now, to the field …
Endorsement blues. Two prominent female members of Congress from New York saw their endorsed candidates tumble in Tuesday’s closely watched primaries.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s pick for the nomination in New York’s newly configured 17th Congressional District, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, fell to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. Ocasio-Cortez can tout her willingness to take on a powerful figure in Maloney, sitting chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Still, a loss is a loss, and Biaggi’s defeat revealed the limits of Ocasio-Cortez’s influence against the so-called Democratic establishment, even in her home state.
On the Republican side, Rep. Elise Stefanik’s pick for the nomination in western New York’s 23rd Congressional District, perennial candidate Carl Paladino, fell to Nick Langworthy, the state GOP chairman. Stefanik is a top Trump ally and the No. 3-ranking Republican in the House. Although Paladino’s loss might be chalked up to his habit of controversial comments, Langworthy’s victory also has to be a blow to Stefanik as she mulls running for a higher leadership position in the next Congress.
Stefanik has not ruled out running for whip, the chief conference vote-counter, should Republicans win the majority in November.
Arizona governor. Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake came under fire this week for endorsing a bigot, Jarrin Jackson, who is running for a seat in the Oklahoma Senate. Jackson’s antisemitic and anti-gay opinions had been previously reported yet somehow slipped through Lake’s endorsement vetting process.
Among Jackson’s public comments? He has said “the Jews” are evidence “evil exists.” There also was this beauty, as reported by the Arizona Mirror: “The Jews, Illuminati, Covid shots kill. Rothschilds. Communists. Woke pastors. Social gospel. Christ will chuck a bunch of stuff in the fire.”
The good news for Lake, who won her primary on the strength of an endorsement from Trump, is that she moved swiftly to stanch the political bleeding. First, the former television news anchor declared she would rescind her endorsement if reports of Jackson’s comments were true. “I looked at Jarrin’s resume as [a] Combat Veteran in Afghanistan. It is impossible to dig into everything someone has said in their life,” Lake told Axios Phoenix. Not long after, the Lake campaign confirmed she had withdrawn her endorsement of Jackson altogether.
Meanwhile, Jackson still enjoys the support of some top Arizona Republicans: secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem and state Sen. Wendy Rogers.
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2024 watch. Trump’s approval ratings are up among Republican voters nationally, according to a fresh YouGov poll conducted for the Economist.
The former president is attributing the development to the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago earlier this month that he continues to denounce as a political witch hunt intent on pushing him out of politics. In an email sent around Wednesday afternoon by Save America, Trump’s political action committee, he highlighted a story published by Newsweek reporting on the YouGov poll.
“A poll from The Economist/YouGov published on Thursday shows that 57 percent of those who identified as Republican now have a very favorable view of the former president,” Newsweek reported. “That’s a notable increase from the same poll the previous week, which showed that 45 percent of Republicans said their view of Trump was very favorable. The former president’s overall favorability with Republicans remained unchanged at 80 percent.”
The email from Save America is among the up to dozens Trump’s PAC sends out daily suggesting that the federal investigation into his alleged possession of classified documents since leaving the White House is A) political persecution driven by Biden, B) a big boost to his 2024 prospects, and C) basically a boon to all things Trump.
To wit, Save America issued another email missive Wednesday announcing that Truth Social, the Twitter-like social media platform Trump founded, saw a “bump” in business following the FBI raid.