SPONSORED:

McConnell treads cautiously in Trump's post-election fight

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate approves two energy regulators, completing panel On The Money: Biden announces key members of economic team | GOP open to Yellen as Treasury secretary, opposed to budget pick | GAO: Labor Department 'improperly presented' jobless data Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary MORE (R-Ky.) is walking a fine line with his handling of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 RoundsSenate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Trump keeps tight grip on GOP amid divisions 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 HarrisWho will replace Harris in Senate? 'Rising' discusses Wisconsin formally declares Biden won election following recount Moderate Democrats: Everyone's older siblings 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s why they’re hoping Trump will campaign for Sens. David PerdueDavid PerdueGeorgia lieutenant governor says GOP risks 'alienating voters' with voter fraud claims Ossoff features Obama in TV ad ahead of in Georgia run-off Press: Divided government begins in Georgia MORE (R) and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Georgia secretary of state opens investigation into voter registration groups Trump Jr. aides launch super PAC to persuade president's supporters to vote in Georgia MORE (R) ahead of the January runoff.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win 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 BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

He has also given more moderate members of his conference, such as Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (R-Maine) and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate 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 TrudeauCanada moves to limit prescription drug exports after Trump order Trudeau says Canadians will likely have to wait until 2021 for first doses of COVID-19 vaccine Toronto goes into lockdown as COVID-19 cases climb MORE and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.