The Agony and Ecstasy of Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
May 26, 2022

For the better part of the past five years, Mitch McConnell has crafted a veritable playbook for surfing the Trump wave while mitigating his exposure to the most vile and damaging elements of the former president. He’s been disciplined (never invoking Trump’s name), calculating (never a “no” just because Trump is a “yes”), and realpolitik (bear-hugging problematic Trump candidates, such as Georgia’s Herschel Walker, who allegedly held a gun to his wife’s head). This rare political dexterity explains why the Hammer has been elected unopposed Minority or Majority Leader of the Senate since 2007, a tenure in which he has been master of the legislative process and has had full command of the G.O.P. conference. 

It’s all a bit wild considering that McConnell is a deeply unpopular figure in the country, and even in his home state of Kentucky. But McConnell doesn’t care about popularity so much as he cares about the institution, and ultimately changing the country through confirming conservative judges, which he’s done at a record pace that will define his legacy.  

There’s been the persistent rumor throughout D.C. that McConnell will retire in two years, when he turns 82 and surpasses Mike Mansfield as the longest-serving Senate party leader. But there’s been even more whispering lately that he has lost his grip on the party. This election season, in particular, could test the theory. McConnell faces a multi-headed hydra of issues that will challenge even his own legendary wits and cunning: a slate of antagonistic candidates, some of whom are already calling for his ouster; divisions within his own ranks; and the ambitions and whims of the other senior citizen vying for unrivaled control of the party. 

The Gordian Knot

In the past, candidates who pitted themselves against McConnell may have won primaries, but they always lost general elections and cost the party seats in the process. This form of intra-party attrition was a feature of the height of the Tea Party movement, when Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell lost Delaware in the 2010 cycle and then again in 2012 with ToddLegitimate RapeAkin, who blew it in Missouri. 

The rise of the MAGA movement, however, has introduced a plethora of new problematic and crazy candidates who will force McConnell to face a political Gordian knot—requiring him to figure out whether to support candidates who may deliver Republicans the Senate, and return him as Leader, while also presumably causing him massive migraines under the Capitol dome. J.D. Vance, who just won the G.O.P. primary in Ohio, and will likely win the general election, recently said he would like a change in leadership. Trump-endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, in Alaska, has said that she will not support McConnell. Ditto Blake Masters in Arizona, who may end up getting the Trump endorsement thanks to the support of his mentor, billionaire mega-donor Peter Thiel. There are others, too.

Luckily for McConnell, there aren’t many alternatives. No one really wants to be Senate Majority Leader. It’s actually a thankless job that involves listening sessions with whiney members and lots of hustling for party dollars. The three Johns that rank below him in leadership—Cornyn, Barrasso and Thune—are unlikely to step up to challenge him. And the ambitious, young-ish guns of the next generation—Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley—all harbor presidential aspirations instead. It’s unlikely that any really want to vie for a role that would require them to take unpopular votes that don’t play well in national elections. 

Sure, there’s always the possibility that some MAGA upstart could decide to challenge McConnell if Republicans win the Senate by a slim majority. This person could fashion themself as leader of a sort of Senate Freedom Caucus, perhaps supported by other populist-leaning members, like Hawley, Scott, Mike Lee, Bill Hagerty, Roger Marshall, Cynthia Lummis and Tommy Tuberville. With such a slim Republican majority in the Senate, and all of the Democrats voting for Chuck Schumer, it’s conceivable that McConnell could be denied the 51 votes necessary to take the mantle. No one would dare underestimate him, and he’s savvy enough to wiggle his way out of most numbers games. But with the retirement of establishmentarian types Richard Burr, Rob Portman, and Roy Blunt, it’s not impossible.

Wading In Without Getting Caught

This tenuous position demonstrates why McConnell cannot spare a vote from Missouri. According to Trump’s favorite pollster, Rob Cahaly, at Trafalgar, Senate candidate Eric Greitens is leading in the polls with 26 percent of the vote in the state’s Republican Senate primary. It turns out that some voters in Missouri don’t care if you’re accused of allegedly blackmailing your mistress by taking a photo of her duct taped half-naked or reportedly abusing your wife and child. (Greitens has adamantly denied the charges.) But McConnell cares… at least about the fact that Greitens has created a campaign vowing to take him head-on as Majority Leader, if he actually wins the general election. 

Greitens, of course, is a strange duck: a robotic, Harvard educated, ex-SEAL, who has money in the bank from billionaire Dick Uihlein, who gave $2.5 million to a pro-Greitens Super PAC, and Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, who gave $1 million to another pro-Greitens PAC. He has Kimberly Guilfoyle as campaign chair, which initially annoyed Trump. Greitens is also up against primary campaign rivals—Vicky Hartzler, Eric Schmitt, and Billy Long—who don’t have the cash to firebomb the airwaves with negative ads about his allegedly violent and tawdry past. Meanwhile, he appears to share Trump’s Teflon quality: His polls dipped in March after it was revealed that his ex-wife and son had both accused him of abuse, but he bounced right back. Greitens, of course, blamed McConnell and Karl Rove, who helps run the Senate Leadership Fund (S.L.F.), for allegedly orchestrating the charges against him.  

Everyone in D.C. seems to want to know why McConnell hasn’t weaponized the $72 million S.L.F. to oppose Greitens. So far this cycle, after all, the S.L.F. attempted to take out candidate Mo Brooks in Alabama by propping-up Katie Britt, a former staffer for Senator Richard Shelby. But there are mixed views on how that strategy fared. Some say the $2 million donation to a pro-Britt PAC from McConnell’s engine actually hurt her by reinforcing her establishment credentials. Others on her campaign suggest it helped elevate her profile and inevitably placed her in the runoff. 

Either way, it didn’t ultimately take out Brooks, which has some wondering why the S.L.F. didn’t come in sooner. (It probably had to do with McConnell’s cat-and-mouse game with Trump; the money wasn’t deployed until Trump un-endorsed Brooks.) Regardless, there’s now a chance that Brooks will be elected, and if he does, you can bet he probably won’t vote for McConnell. 

For now, S.L.F.’s top operatives, Rove and Steven Law, are keeping their powder dry. Despite demands from donors and other establishment creatures that they run negative ads ahead of Greitens’ August primary, they haven’t done much. There are various reasons. As occurred with Britt, McConnell’s involvement could backfire. If Greitens can claim that McConnell is using S.L.F. or a connected PAC to stealthily attack him, he can dub himself an anti-establishment player who invokes fear inside the Capitol. Even worse, any sudden movements by McConnell World could prompt an endorsement from Trump. 

In order to wade in without getting caught, they’d need to make a stealth cash transfer to another Super PAC with an anodyne name like “Save Missouri,” and they’d presumably prefer to do it late in the game so that there would be a lag in reporting. But some fear time is of the essence, and that McConnell’s old guard can’t play their traditional game of waiting 60 days before the election to start running ads. So far S.L.F. has spent about $9 million in the primaries and Axios reports they plan to spend $43 million over the summer on ad blitzes in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. And Politico reported that they booked $141 million in fall advertisements. But still no sign of movement in Missouri.

The Two Philosophies

In the increasingly siloed McConnell network, there are two philosophies regarding how to deal with Greitens. The split tends to occur along generational lines. Josh Holmes, an aggressive McConnell acolyte and political advisor to the leader, who has also burnished his own brand through his Twitter barbs and successful Ruthless podcast, prefers attacking Greitens aggressively and early. Holmes helped set up S.L.F., and his Calvary Group does digital work for S.L.F., though he is not an official of the PAC. But the PAC’s president, Steven Law, a sage former McConnell chief of staff, has stuck to their method of raising gobs of cash early on, and then spending late, right before voters go out. 

Law’s strategy is entirely data-driven and tends to channel McConnell’s steady-hand approach. Law is backed by Rove, a prolific fundraiser and G.O.P. brand name who is nevertheless no longer considered the ruthless tactician of the Bush era.“The only place where there’s a candidate who could possibly lose a perfectly winnable race would be Eric Greitens, in Missouri. And now it seems less likely that he’ll be the nominee,” Law told Politico. “We don’t seek out opportunities to be involved in primaries.”

From the moment Greitens jumped into the race in April 2021, S.L.F. has been looking seriously at how to get involved but has yet to pull the trigger. In January, frantic members of the caucus were pressuring McConnell to step up. He responded by telling outraged female senators and others to endorse whichever candidates they liked in Missouri, without calling out Greitens. So far, Ted Cruz unsurprisingly endorsed Jeff Roe’s candidate, Eric Schmitt. Hawley endorsed Hartzler.  

So far Greitens’ image has only suffered from earned media, or news articles laying out the allegations against him, but they haven’t stuck with a Republican primary base that doesn’t trust the mainstream press. There’s hope that if and when advertising starts in June and July, Greitens’ candidacy will simply fall apart. 

Will it be too little, too late? Top Republicans are already wondering who will take the blame if Greitens wins the G.O.P. primary and then loses the ruby red state of Missouri in the election. Will it be Trump or McConnell? Meanwhile, if Greitens wins, the headache will be McConnell’s alone to bear. 

Roe’s Woes

Last week, I wrote about how Jeff Roe had become the unquestionable political consultant du jour for his string of victories with Glenn Youngkin, who won the gubernatorial race in Virginia; Jim Pillen, who beat Trump-endorsed Charles Herbster in the gubernatorial primary in Nebraska; and Texas A.G. Ken Paxton. He’s also notched a handful of almost-wins with Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania and Josh Mandel in Ohio. 

But fortunes can change fast in politics, and many have pointed out that Roe has yet to win a Senate race. Indeed, Roe has had a dicey couple of weeks. For one, it looks like Dr. Mehmet Oz will end up beating McCormick in Pennsylvania, which doesn’t bode well for his overall track record. Roe still has a chance to reverse the overall result with his clients Schmitt in Missouri and Jim Lamon in Arizona, whose internal polling shows him slightly leading in a three-way race. (Trump has yet to make an endorsement in that race, but is leaning toward Blake Masters.) On top of that, Roe is having trouble in Michigan. His client James Craig, who may be disqualified from the governor’s race for submitting forged petitions, blamed Roe’s firm Vanguard Field Strategies for not detecting the fraud. 

Roe, of course, has recently and publicly been courting Trump to manage his putative 2024 bid, a move which would presumably require him to abandon his longtime clients Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis. If the budding relationship unwinds now, the fallout may affect more than just Roe. It was Kellyanne Conway who brought Roe into Trump’s orbit in November, in an attempt to smooth things over after Roe encouraged Youngkin to downplay Trump in Virginia, masterminding a model for other moderates seeking to run Trump-adjacent campaigns. 

Conway was already in the doghouse even before Trump bashed her for writing in her new book, Here’s the Deal, that the 2020 election was not stolen. He’s been complaining about her polling ever since she encouraged him to endorse Herbster in Nebraska (whom he endorsed in October 2021 before he was shown polling by Conway). Herbster ultimately lost, bruising Trump’s endorsement record. Will Trump get pissed at Conway for opening the door to Roe? Who knows. Conway, for her part, has a strong reputation in the business for accurately identifying the preferences of Republican women. She sold her polling firm to the reputable G.O.P. public relations firm CRC Advisors. Given the oscillations and fungible definitions of friendship and trust in Trumpworld, this story is likely far from over.