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McConnell treads cautiously in Trump's post-election fight

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Democrats see opportunity in GOP feud with business Biden resists calls to give hard-hit states more vaccines than others MORE (R-Ky.) is walking a fine line with his handling of President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech 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 RoundsCongress looks to rein in Biden's war powers Columbine and the era of the mass shooter, two decades on GOP senator tweets statue of himself holding gun to Biden: 'Come and take it' 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 HarrisPelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report How Kamala Harris can find the solution for the migration crisis White House unveils official portraits of Biden and Harris 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 PerdueGeorgia's top election official looks to shake political drama Lobbying world JPMorgan Chase CEO speaks out to defend voting rights in response to Georgia law MORE (R) and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerGeorgia's top election official looks to shake political drama Collins hits Warnock after All-Star Game pulled: 'Thanks for nothing' High anxiety over Trump in Georgia GOP MORE (R) ahead of the January runoff.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerBiden administration faces big decision on whether to wade into Dakota Access fight OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Senate GOP pushes back on list of participants in oil and gas leasing forum 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 BidenBiden eyes bigger US role in global vaccination efforts Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech Kemp: Pulling All-Star game out of Atlanta will hurt business owners of color 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (R-Maine) and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTwo sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process 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 TrudeauIn-person classes canceled in Toronto amid uptick in variant cases Will Ocasio-Cortez challenge Biden or Harris in 2024? Pfizer to speed up vaccine shipments to Canada 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.