McConnell treads cautiously in Trump's post-election fight

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Ky.) is walking a fine line with his handling of President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE’s refusal to concede the election.

The GOP leader is defending Trump’s right to challenge the vote counts in several key battleground states, arguing the courts are meant to handle disputed election results and that “wealthy media corporations” should not project the winner.

But McConnell is also keeping his distance from the president’s claims of voter fraud that his campaign has yet to back up with any hard evidence.

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“What I’m going to do here in the Senate is concentrate on the business that we have left to do,” he told reporters Tuesday, adding he would “let the presidential election go through the various stages that it goes through under the Constitution.”

Asked if there were any signs of fraud in his own reelection race in Kentucky or any Senate races, McConnell responded: “I don’t know — at the risk of bragging, it wasn’t very close.”

A key consideration for McConnell in his remarks is keeping Trump and his loyal base happy ahead of two Senate runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5 that will decide which party controls the chamber next year.

“There’s another issue that we’re focused on and that is Georgia. Regardless of what else goes on, we will focus on what it takes to win in Georgia because we are the backstop,” said Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Schumer sets up key vote on bipartisan deal MORE (R-S.D.), noting that the top priority of Senate Republicans is to keep their majority.

Right now, Senate Republicans control 50 seats, but Democrats could win control if they sweep in Georgia since Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWant to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Will Pence primary Trump — and win? MORE would cast any tie-breaking votes in the next Congress.

Senate Republicans say that irrespective of Trump’s court fights over the election, he will remain a major force in GOP politics.

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That’s why they’re hoping Trump will campaign for Sens. David PerdueDavid PerdueLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Georgia Republican secretary of state hits Loeffler as 'weak,' 'fake Trumper' MORE (R) and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerSchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Trump says Herschel Walker will enter Georgia Senate race WNBA announces zero COVID-19 positive tests, 99 percent fully vaccinated MORE (R) ahead of the January runoff.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Senate falling behind on infrastructure Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.D.) said “the president and vice president will have a lot of capital” with the base and could be key to turning out Republican voters in Georgia. 

Al Cross, a professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime observer of Kentucky politics, said Biden was correct Tuesday when he said Republicans are “mildly intimidated” by Trump.

Cross said McConnell “has to worry about Trump messing up what they’re trying to do in Georgia, messing up what they might try to do in the next Congress, messing up the next election, messing up the party.”

Other political observers have gone a step further, warning that Trump is inflicting lasting damage on American democracy with his claims of a stolen election.

Senate Republicans, however, are largely aligning themselves with Trump’s position on the election results. Only four GOP senators have extended congratulations to President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Iowa governor suggests immigrants partially to blame for rising COVID-19 cases Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE.

Between now and Inauguration Day, McConnell will need Trump’s support to pass a year-end omnibus spending bill and a targeted coronavirus relief package, two of his top priorities for the lame-duck session — something that is far from guaranteed. Failure to pass a spending bill before Dec. 12 would lead to a government shutdown.

Still, McConnell has been careful not to directly endorse Trump’s fraud claims, which could undermine the legitimacy of an election that is expected to return Republicans to the Senate majority.

The GOP leader also has his own reputation to protect.

“McConnell is an institutionalist and he’s a member of the body that is supposed to be the saucer that cools the hot coffee from the cup of the House,” Cross said, noting McConnell’s cool reception to claims of voter fraud that House GOP leaders have echoed.

That image of McConnell could easily be tarnished if he were to latch onto Trump’s sweeping and so far baseless allegations of fraud and official misconduct.

McConnell’s stance on the disputed election results has set the tone for other Senate Republicans and given them political cover to deflect questions about whether they view Biden as the president-elect and whether Trump should concede.

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He has also given more moderate members of his conference, such as Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE (R-Maine) and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMichelle Obama to Simone Biles: 'We are proud of you and we are rooting for you' Aly Raisman defends former teammate Biles: 'I'm proud of her' Mitt Romney praises Simone Biles following withdrawal from team event MORE (R-Utah), room to congratulate Biden on his victory.

Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said McConnell is “trying a very delicate balancing act.” 

“McConnell is mostly interested in preserving the GOP majority in the Senate, so he has to support Trump enough to ensure that Trump campaigns for Republican candidates in Georgia. But McConnell has left some distance between himself and Trump so as not to get caught up in the fraud controversy,” he said.

West added that he doesn’t expect McConnell to call on Trump to concede the election or to inform him that his support among Republican senators is eroding. 

“I would be surprised if McConnell would want to be the messenger, knowing how the president is going to respond. I think it would make more sense for McConnell to let others convey the message at the point he thinks it’s a lost cause. Nobody would want to be the messenger for Trump,” he said.

A growing list of world leaders have already congratulated Biden as the victor, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauBiden administration stokes frustration over Canada The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Schumer moves ahead with likely-to-fail infrastructure vote US extends travel restrictions with Canada, Mexico MORE and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Trump’s aides are telling reporters that Biden and lawmakers on Capitol Hill shouldn’t expect Trump to concede the race. While he may stop contesting the results in court, he isn’t likely to publicly accept them, they say.

Romney, an outspoken Trump critic, earlier in the week acknowledged that the president remains the most powerful force in the GOP.

“He has the biggest voice, the biggest following. Surely the Republican voters listen to him more than any other Republican right now,” he said.