McConnell aims to sidestep GOP drama over Trump

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is trying to keep the focus on President Biden — and off GOP divisions — heading into November.  

McConnell’s public maneuvering — declining to say what the party’s agenda would be in 2023 and largely refusing to mention former President Trump by name — comes as Republicans are feeling increasingly bullish about their chances of winning back the Senate.  

There are plenty of headaches awaiting Republicans — a churn of sporadic GOP infighting in the House, sharp-elbowed primaries in key Senate races and the long shadow of Trump, who still holds a grudge against the GOP leader.

But McConnell is staying single-mindedly homed in on Biden and Democrats’ agenda and sending an indirect signal for his party to do the same.  

“As a political matter, as a strategic matter, it makes little sense to go down this rabbit hole. … He’s far too disciplined to allow himself to be distracted,” said Scott Jennings, a former McConnell campaign adviser.

“It’s the same thing on Trump. … He just won’t take the bait. He’s just never going to allow himself to be knocked off of his strategic path and the path here is very clear: Keep Joe Biden and his failures at the center of the conversation of this election. Period,” Jennings added.  

It isn’t that McConnell, who turns 80 in February, isn’t at times pushed to go off message. But McConnell, who has been Senate GOP leader since 2007, is known for being strategic, tight-lipped and careful about when, or if, he weighs in on any given topic.  

Asked during a recent press conference about what the party’s agenda will be in 2023 if they win back the Senate majority, McConnell sidestepped.  

“That is a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back,” McConnell told reporters.  

“This midterm election will be a report card on the performance of this entire Democratic government: the president, the House and the Senate. … Make no mistake about it, the election this fall is a referendum on this all-Democratic government,” he added.  

Even if Republicans win back the House, Senate or both in the November elections, they’ll still be limited by Biden being in the White House.  

McConnell, during stops in Kentucky this week, has reiterated that he’s willing to work with the Biden administration on areas where they agree, highlighting his support for infrastructure.  

And while some of McConnell’s allies have pointed to areas where they think the GOP-controlled Senate could work with Biden, including trade and reining in tech companies, they are also lining up behind his strategy for November.  

“I think that he’s right in that this is going to be a referendum on this administration and the Democrat agenda,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2.  

Describing the party’s post-2022 agenda would be could also backfire on McConnell. 

Complicating the matter further is that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has outlined some of his own ideas about what his caucus, which skews further to the right and is in closer alignment with Trump than the Senate GOP caucus, will pursue if they win back the House.  

If McConnell did the same, it would invite comparisons to McCarthy and Trump and trickle down into Senate GOP primaries, where some candidates may be asked if they agree with McConnell’s ideas.

“He’s probably thinking that he doesn’t want to pin anybody in in a race,” a McConnell ally told The Hill. 

It would also take McConnell off his preferred subject: Biden.

McConnell’s decision to sidestep offering an agenda hasn’t gone unnoticed.  

Biden, during his first press conference of the year, questioned what the Senate GOP leader supported.  

“The fundamental question is, what’s Mitch for?” asked Biden. “What’s he for on immigration? What’s he proposing?”

Biden has been hit by a spate of negative polls, feeding GOP hopes of winning back congressional majorities this fall. Democrats have also been plagued by infighting over their legislative agenda.

Pointing to the positive environment for Republicans and Biden’s recent setbacks, Jennings added, “How you mess that up? By going out and doing things that take the focus off of that.” 

“His message, I think, to all Republicans is ‘Follow my lead, let’s talk about Joe Biden.’ … There’s plenty enough to run an election on. You don’t need to invent anything else,” he said. 

It mirrors McConnell’s larger strategy of trying to avoid publicly stirring GOP drama.  

McConnell is at odds with Trump over the Alaska Senate race, where he’s supporting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R). McConnell is also hoping to convince Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, two Republicans who have been targets for Trump and would align more closely to McConnell’s own wing of the party, to jump into Senate races.  

But McConnell downplayed the potential for a proxy war with Trump that would play out through the 2022 races, noting to CNN that they were on the same page in Nevada and Georgia, while pointing to Alaska as “one place where the former president and I have a disagreement.” 

McConnell and Trump have polar-opposite personalities, but they were close allies for most of Trump’s White House tenure. The GOP leader fell out of favor after he congratulated Biden in mid-December on his White House win.

McConnell also gave fiery speeches in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack and at the end of Trump’s second impeachment trial, blaming the then-president for the attack by a mob of his supporters on the Capitol. 

While McConnell has stood up for fellow GOP senators who have been publicly ripped by Trump — most recently backing up Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) — he’s gone near radio silent about Trump’s continued attacks against him and largely refuses to mention Trump by name. 

During a Fox News interview last week, host Bret Baier tried multiple times to get McConnell to weigh in on the former president.  

“I think the midterm election almost certainly is going to be a referendum on the party in power,” McConnell said, asked if he thought Trump would be a help to the party in the midterms.

When Baier tried again to get McConnell to comment on the former president, he declined.

“There were two questions about former President Trump,” Baier responded, closing out the interview. “I noticed you didn’t talk about him.” 

Tags Donald Trump Doug Ducey Joe Biden John Thune Kevin McCarthy Larry Hogan Lisa Murkowski Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell

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