Mitch McConnell, the reticent majority leader of the Senate, faces a challenges on all sides: allies eying the exit, powerful enemies gunning to pick off supporters, a frosty relationship with the president, and, perhaps most importantly, no progress on his pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
In poll after poll, McConnell’s unpopularity among the Republican base is enervating. Grassroots conservatives see him as the personification of the status quo they rallied against in the presidential election. And the election in Alabama's Senate primary of controversial former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, who ran against McConnell, emboldens other hard-right candidates.
Still, McConnell holds sway with those who matter most, the 52 Republican senators who elect him and give him his power.
“He’s one of the very best senators that I’ve been associated with,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, whose campaign McConnell turned around in 2014 on the way to securing the Senate majority. “In terms of strategy, he not only anticipates what we’re doing now, but what will happen down the road.”
McConnell’s Republican colleagues say his radical moves to get Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, changing the rules to lower the bar from a 60-vote threshold and effectively sidelining the need to get Democratic support, is President Trump’s, and McConnell’s, greatest accomplishment this year. But the continuing failure to pass a bill to overhaul Obamacare in the Senate has widened a rift between Trump and McConnell, the House and McConnell, and conservatives and McConnell. When asked at a July press conference what he’d tell voters next year, McConnell said, “Well, we have a new Supreme Court justice.”
McConnell has built a money-making machine in his decade as leader, and the decade before that as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other party positions. After Republicans failed to take back the Senate majority in 2012, McConnell’s team moved aggressively to take out controversial challengers on their way to winning it in 2014. In the 2016 election cycle, the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-linked cuper PAC, spent over $114 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Trump’s victory has threatened the party built by McConnell. In the Alabama GOP primary, senators urged Trump to help their own Sen. Luther Strange. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Strange, who mimicked Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric and tried to paint Moore as a member of it. Yet Strange, the former state attorney general, had been picked by Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned in scandal, and Moore captured the support of the Trump base. The SLF says it spent approximately $9 million in support of Strange, but the senator still lost to Moore by 9 points.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart News, rallied for Moore and is looking for other populist challengers to back across the South. This week, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a moderate Republican dealmaker, announced that he would retire at the end of his term next year, opening up another potentially contentious primary, along with those in Arizona, Nevada, and Mississippi.
“We’re basically gonna tell people: if McConnell endorses you, you’re finished,” Bannon recently told Politico. “That’s gonna put the fear of God in everybody.”
With McConnell becoming a target of criticism by the president and the party’s base, some conservative rabble-rousers in the Senate are in the uncomfortable position of supporting a leader that many of their allies do not. When asked if he supported McConnell as leader, Sen. Rand Paul simply said, “yes,” but wouldn’t explain why under questioning.
Sen. Ted Cruz is up for reelection in 2018. After failing in his antiestablishment bid for the presidency, he has made an effort to reach out to the business community aligned with McConnell and the “governing wing” of the Republican Party. But when asked in an interview Thursday if he supported McConnell for majority leader, he did not directly answer the question, calling the failure to repeal Obamacare unacceptable.
“I'm not playing the D.C. parlor game,” said Cruz. “Here is what I know, we are failing the American people. We are not keeping our promises and not only are voters frustrated, but I'm frustrated.”
“If our inability to fulfill the mandates voters gave us continues, we won't be electing a majority leader in 2019, we'll be electing a minority leader,” he added.
Still, Republican senators broadly support McConnell, and some say McConnell’s challenges are not of his own making. Roberts said that five or six Republican senators “wander off the reservation, depending on personal views, ideology, process, or subject matter.”
“The truth is that we’re not in the majority,” added Roberts. “We’re in the minority operating in the majority in the eyes of the public.”
In Alabama, only 10 percent of Alabama Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of McConnell, according to an internal poll conducted by the Strange campaign, while 59 percent viewed him unfavorably. McConnell's numbers were barely better among Republicans than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's, the survey showed.
In an interview, Sen. Richard Shelby said McConnell is a “good leader” who did a “great job” getting Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
“I didn’t know he was unpopular,” he said. “He’s popular with me.”
Josh Kraushaar contributed