For McConnell, it’s now or never

If Republicans fall short of expectations this fall, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellJohn McCain: No longer a profile in courage McConnell: Senate won't take up TPP this year Barack Obama is the founder of Donald Trump MORE (Ky.) could face a leadership challenge.

Republican senators say there is much riding on the Nov. 4 elections for McConnell, who is gunning to become majority leader while also attempting to defeat a well-funded Democratic opponent.

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“If we don’t win the majority then all bets are off,” one GOP senator told The Hill when asked whether McConnell could face a leadership race if Republicans remained in the minority in 2015.

The senator, who requested anonymity, said some members of the Senate Republican Conference would call for a re-evaluation of McConnell’s tactics, which the lawmaker described as maintaining total party unity in opposition to the Democratic agenda.

The senator acknowledged that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is difficult to work with because he has severely limited the ability of Republicans to offer amendments.

“There’s no question Harry Reid is very tough to deal with, but some of us wonder whether we should have tried to go around him to work with other Democrats,” the senator said. 

Conservative critics, on the other hand, argue that McConnell has been too accommodating and has not been fierce enough in waging the battle to repeal ObamaCare or slash federal spending.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, has been at odds with McConnell on a number of issues. The Texas Republican declined to say in an ABC News interview last month whether he would even vote for McConnell as majority leader if Republicans pick up six seats or more.

Democrats criticize Reid as well. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently said Reid’s decision to limit floor debates is “overprotective.” Meanwhile, Senate Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn (Ga.) has indicated she might not vote for Reid as Democratic leader if she were to win her race next month. And Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) privately said he prefers Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — not 
Reid — to be majority leader next year.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) said during a debate Tuesday night that the Senate would be more productive if both party leaders resigned.

He said senators "could perhaps do better in both parties moving forward" when asked if Reid is the best leader for the body.

Another GOP senator said a race for minority leader is possible if Republicans fumble their chance of winning the Senate.

“There may be some merit to that,” the lawmaker said when asked about a colleague’s prediction that McConnell could face a challenge. 

The senator pointed out, however, that few Republican senators seem eager to take McConnell’s job because that would instantly make one of them a top political target.

A third GOP senator predicted the conference would stick with McConnell regardless of the outcome of November’s races: “Win or lose, it’s going to be Mitch. Who else is there?”

McConnell is well respected by his Republican colleagues in the Senate. They unanimously elected him leader at the beginning of this Congress and many have praised his legislative cunning as well as his close working relationship with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

But Republicans are tired of being in the minority, a status they have endured since the beginning of 2007.

Party leaders recognize the high stakes of the next several weeks.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) wrote in an August letter to supporters, “It is entirely possible that Republicans can pick up 10-14 seats this cycle should we run the table.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus admitted Sunday that it would be a failure if Republicans did not take over the Senate.

“We’ve got to win the Senate,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

If they don’t do so this year, it will be much tougher for Republicans to pick up seats in 2016, a presidential election year when Democratic-registered voters typically turn out in greater numbers. 

Democrats have had to defend many vulnerable incumbents in conservative-leaning states this year but the landscape will be the mirror image in the next election cycle when Republican incumbents face reelection in states President Obama won. That means if Republicans don’t win the majority this year, they will likely remain out of power in the Senate until at least 2018.

Conservative groups will press for a shake-up of the Senate Republican leadership if next month’s election yields disappointing results.

“If Republicans can’t win a majority with such a poor performing president, during his lame-duck midterm elections, the leadership needs to be replaced starting with Mitch McConnell,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has backed conservative opponents against candidates favored by party leaders in GOP primaries.

Cuccinelli added, “McConnell blew millions in red-state primaries to protect incumbents from more electable conservatives, he violently attacked his own base, he vehemently avoided any agenda for the party to stand on … there’s no question that Mitch McConnell put himself and his desire to ‘crush conservatives’ ahead of the best interests of the party and the country.”

Senior officials of other conservative groups have said McConnell will come under pressure to step down if Democrats keep the Senate.

“I would expect a total shakeup,” said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group. “A lot of us see the lack of a positive issue agenda as a key part of that. The traditional Republican consultant strategy of running out the clock when things look good is a good way to lose elections at the margin.”

Drew Ryun, the political director of the Madison Project, which opposed McConnell in his primary race earlier this year, said the minority leader could lose a surprise leadership election if he doesn’t win the majority.

“If they lose, I think it’s the end of McConnell, if they don’t take the majority back. Everybody knows Jerry Moran is the de facto leader of the NRSC, but Mitch McConnell’s guys are running the shop,” he said.

“I think he will try to hang on but the Republicans will say enough. I think there will be a move, I just don’t know who it would be,” he added.

McConnell has received sharp criticism from these groups before. His allies accuse groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project of waging internecine warfare to raise money from conservative donors and line their own pockets.

A senior aide to a conservative senator said the Senate GOP leadership is playing “small ball” by talking about the Keystone XL pipeline and Trade Promotion Authority when entitlement reform and the massive federal debt are issues more likely to mobilize conservative voters. 

A Republican leadership aide countered that McConnell has been at the forefront of pushing entitlement reform. After the Republican wave elections of 2010, McConnell called on President Obama to work with Republicans to curb the soaring growth of Medicare and ensure the sustainability of Social Security.

A senior aide to another conservative senator said: “I think McConnell is the leader, win or lose, by default. Not because he’s doing such a miraculously wonderful job. No one seems remotely interested.”

This story was updated at 9:31 a.m.