The Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump is over, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to move on. In an interview this week with the Wall Street Journal, he said the important thing now is to regain the Senate in 2022 by “getting candidates who can actually win in November.”
Toward that end, McConnell suggested he might get involved in some GOP primaries. “I personally don’t care what kind of Republican they are, what kind of lane they consider themselves in,” McConnell said. “What I care about is electability.”
That’s quite a statement coming from McConnell, who has a mixed record at backing “electable” candidates. In the 2009-10 cycle, McConnell fought hard against then-candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, and (briefly) Pat Toomey, deeming them unelectable. He opposed Ted Cruz in 2012 and Ben Sasse in 2014.
He was largely responsible for losing a GOP Senate seat in Alabama in 2017 after backing Luther Strange over the conservative Rep. Mo Brooks in the Republican primary, which then elevated Roy Moore to a runoff with Strange. And we all know how that turned out. Arguably, McConnell is the reason Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama in 25 years.
In the other direction, McConnell-backed candidates like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Rick Berg in North Dakota, and Connie Mack in Florida all lost their Senate bids in 2012. Yet somehow McConnell is still presented as a shrewd judge of electability.
In his remarks to the Journal, McConnell contrasts the current 50-50 split Senate to 2009, when the GOP had just 40 senators, noting that “It took us six years to crawl out of that hole.” It sure did, and part of the reason the GOP got out of that hole was thanks to the above-mentioned Tea Party candidates and the energy of that movement after the 2008 election.
Yet McConnell did his utmost to fend off Tea Party primary challengers all over the country during those years, with uneven results. One could argue, as my colleague Mollie Hemingway has, that if McConnell and the GOP establishment had been more open to the conservative base of the party, and more willing to stay out of contested primaries, Republicans would be in a better place today.
Setting aside the Tea Party, though, the idea that McConnell knows how to pick electable candidates is laughable. One need not look far for examples.
Consider the Georgia special election last month. McConnell went all-out to make sure Kelly Loeffler, a horrible candidate whose only qualification for office was being a big-time GOP donor, got the full financial backing of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the entire GOP establishment.
Recall that Loeffler was appointed to finish out the term of Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019 for health reasons. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp defied Trump and many other conservatives, who wanted Rep. Doug Collins to fill the seat, McConnell backed Kemp’s choice, insisting that Loeffler, who had never been elected to office or even campaigned before, would be more “electable.”
Ironic, then, that McConnell blames Trump for the losses in Georgia. “Georgia was a fiasco,” McConnell told the Journal. “We all know why that occurred.”
Yes, we do. It occurred at least in part because McConnell decided to treat Loeffler like an incumbent. It didn’t help that in the crucial weeks between Nov. 3 and the runoff election in Georgia on Jan. 5, McConnell opposed an extremely popular proposal (polling 80-20 at the time) to bump stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000, essentially handing Democrats ready-made anti-GOP ads.
McConnell and other Washington Republicans were confident in their ground game in Georgia, that the wooden, no-charisma Loeffler didn’t need an outside assist like stimulus checks going into the special election. But they were wrong, again.
McConnell and other Washington Republicans blame Trump for the losses in Georgia, according to the theory that Trump’s repeated accusations of voter fraud and denunciations of Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger depressed GOP turnout.
Trump lays the blame at McConnell’s feet. In a withering statement released Tuesday, Trump lambasted McConnell for putting himself “into the advertisements” in Georgia, which is not an unfair criticism. Trump also confirmed that he will play a role in upcoming GOP primaries, saying he will “back primary rivals who espouse Make America Great Again and our policy of America First.”
That sets up a possible 2022 primary season in which McConnell-backed candidates go up directly against Trump-backed candidates in what would be an open war for the future of the GOP. Asked about Trump’s role in 2022, McConnell told the Journal, “I don’t rule out the prospect that he may well be supporting good candidates,” and that he’s not going to assume that Trump “won’t be a constructive part of the process.”
So maybe there’s an open midterm clash, maybe not. But for all the talk about what the GOP becomes post-Trump, and whether Republicans need pro-Trump candidates in order to regain a Senate majority in 2022, this much is certain: there’s not been enough talk about McConnell’s dismal role in picking candidates in recent years. The last person the Republican Party should consult right now about who is electable and who is not is McConnell—a man who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.