McConnell eyes Trump, Paul and reelection when it comes to emergency fight
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needs the support of President Trump and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to win reelection next year, meaning he must rely on two men at opposite sides of the debate over the use of an emergency declaration to build a wall on the southern border.
The cautious GOP leader, who routinely suffers from poor approval ratings in his home state, never takes political outcomes for granted and always tries to minimize uncertainty.
That means he can’t afford public fights with Trump or Paul, who are both more popular with the GOP base.
This political reality helps explain McConnell’s careful moves in the showdown between Republicans and Trump over the president’s emergency declaration for the wall.
McConnell has been careful not to criticize Trump and has even offered his support, even though he admitted last week that he wasn’t certain whether it was entirely constitutional — an argument that is coming from Paul.
The libertarian senator over the weekend said he would vote for a resolution of disapproval of Trump’s emergency declaration, giving it majority support in the Senate. He argues the president is contradicting the will of Congress with his actions.
McConnell, a traditionalist who opposed former President Obama’s expansive use of executive authority, has at times seemed to signal strong sympathy for such arguments.
But his reelection strategy is to leave no daylight between himself and Trump, who has a 53 percent approval rating in Kentucky — the ninth highest of any state in the country, according to a recent Gallup poll.
“Donald Trump is very important” to the majority leader’s reelection, said McConnell adviser Scott Jennings.
“The fact that they’re going to be on the ballot together in 2020 makes that relationship vital,” he said. “It strikes me that McConnell’s reelection prospects as they relate to Trump couldn’t be more bulletproof.”
At a Kentucky rally in October, Trump praised McConnell as “one of the most powerful men in the world,” a “rock-ribbed Kentucky leader,” and a “tough cookie” for pushing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh through to confirmation.
But Trump is known to be mercurial in his affection, and only a year earlier he bashed McConnell relentlessly on Twitter for the failure to pass legislation repealing ObamaCare.
Paul, who represents the more libertarian and Tea Party wings of the Kentucky GOP, is also a vital ally.
“His support is important. McConnell had his endorsement last time and they work together more than they don’t,” Jennings said of Paul. “There’s no secret that Rand Paul comes from a slightly different wing of the party than Mitch McConnell, but the vast majority of time they’re on the same page. Occasionally they aren’t.”
McConnell is likely to face a tough race in 2020, though he has defeated aggressive efforts in the past by Democrats to unseat him.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is already moving aggressively to recruit Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who flew dozens of combat missions in Afghanistan, to run against him. She lost to veteran Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) by a few points in November.
McConnell has a 38 percent approval rating and 47 percent disapproval rating in Kentucky, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.
Paul, in contrast, enjoyed a 43 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval rating in the same survey.
Paul told reporters Monday that he expects a total of 10 Republican senators will wind up supporting the measure and said the total vote could come within spitting distance of the 67 needed to override Trump’s veto.
“The president is not allowed to write executive orders that are against the will of Congress, which this appears to be,” he said.
“My hope in coming out now is that there will be a more full debate,” he added. “By my count, I’ve had at least 10 people coming up to me saying they will vote to disapprove on this,” referring to GOP colleagues.
“There are more than people think,” he said. “If we got to 60 or above 60, then you’re talking about only a few votes as to whether [a veto override] would happen.”
Paul spoke to Trump over the weekend to explain his decision.
He told The Hill that he made his position clear to the entire GOP conference on Tuesday when he spoke against the emergency declaration during a lunch meeting attended by Vice President Pence.
“I had a big conversation at lunch when Pence was here last week. I don’t think anybody thought at lunch I hadn’t made a decision,” he said.
Paul’s home-state popularity was on display when Trump traveled to Kentucky in 2017 to hold a rally to pressure the independent-minded libertarian conservative to vote for ObamaCare repeal and replace legislation.
When Trump mentioned Paul’s name at the rally, the crowd responded with a loud cheer — louder than the response than Trump elicited when he mentioned McConnell’s name.
The lawmakers’ relationship was awkward early in Paul’s political career after McConnell endorsed his Republican primary opponent, Trey Grayson, in a last-ditch move to block the Tea Party insurgent from coming to the Senate.
But McConnell secured Paul’s crucial endorsement ahead of his 2014 reelection campaign, when he faced a conservative primary challenge from now-Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R).
It was a coup that prevented Bevin, who wound up losing to McConnell by nearly 25 points, from gaining much momentum among Tea Party-inclined primary voters.
“What was important was avoiding Paul’s opposition. That would have been really troublesome,” Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, said of the 2014 election. “What McConnell probably feared was that Paul would sit it out. If he sat it out, that certainly would have allowed Bevin to use Paul’s followers.”
“Not having [Paul’s] endorsement limited Bevin’s use of that base,” he added.
McConnell returned the personal political favor by endorsing Paul for president in 2016, making him the only senator to do so.
McConnell’s team asked Paul to campaign for their boss around Kentucky in 2014, and they’re expected to do so again this election cycle.
Paul’s political value, in turn, gives him more leeway to buck McConnell without feeling any recrimination.
“They have an unusual relationship that they try to make productive for each of them,” remarked Cross.
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