Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was re-elected to another term as GOP conference chief on Wednesday after an underwhelming midterm performance kept Republicans from taking a majority in the upper chamber. But McConnell’s win as Republicans lose is just going to be more ammo for former President Donald Trump, who announced a third bid for the White House just one night before the Senate leader’s re-election.
Neither Trump nor McConnell looks triumphant after last week’s elections. Many of Trump’s top candidates lost key races while McConnell emerges as the culprit for losing the majority. McConnell’s PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), re-routed scarce resources from competitive pick-up opportunities to the Alaska Senate contest between two Republicans. But while several Trump-backed candidates never made it across the finish line, Trump did not deliberately sabotage the effort. McConnell did, and for it, he draw a last-minute leadership challenge from Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
Scott, also a popular former two-term governor of Florida, chaired the National Republican Senate Committee this cycle, spending millions on candidates McConnell had abandoned in competitive pick-up races. The NRSC spent heavily in Arizona and New Hampshire, in particular, where the SLF had dropped Republican candidates who had pledged opposition to McConnell for leader.
But despite the challenge, McConnell captured another two years in leadership in a vote of 37-10 by secret ballot. One senator abstained. The vote came less than 24 hours after Trump’s campaign announcement from Mar-a-Lago.
“America’s comeback starts right now,” Trump said. “Your country is being destroyed before your eyes.”
All the fundamentals going into the 2022 Election Day indicated Republicans would sweep the midterms. Inflation at a four-decade high has left 63 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. Security at the southern border is a joke, and crime has become so widespread nationwide that leftist district attorneys even fell on the electoral chopping block. More than 70 percent of Americans said they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and just 40 percent said they approve of President Joe Biden. Where midterms are a referendum on the president and party in power, the outlook for Democrats looked as bleak as the Titanic headed for an iceberg.
But then election night came, and Republicans, with McConnell at the helm, failed to capture a majority in the Senate. Control of the House wasn’t even called until a week later, with Republicans edging out Democrats with a razor-thin majority far smaller than expected.
Scott’s challenge to McConnell reflects the frustration over the Senate leader’s backdoor efforts to capture a controllable minority over an effective majority. McConnell not only pulled away from key races, but he also whined publicly about purportedly bad GOP candidates.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said on Fox News in late August. “Senate races are just different. They’re statewide. Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
When McConnell and his allies complain about “candidate quality,” however, they’re not really complaining about the capability of candidates to do the job for which they’ve been nominated. They are complaining about Republican voters — and the people those voters choose to represent them among elites in Washington.
McConnell’s disdain for voter-selected nominees mirrors his aversion to Trump. And the distinction between these two Republican leaders couldn’t be clearer. Voters initially gravitated toward Trump, electing a television celebrity and Manhattan real estate developer with no experience in elected office to hold the highest office in the land because Trump catered to those voters and railed against the Beltway class. McConnell does just the opposite.
McConnell’s re-election to Senate leader is a massive campaign gift to Trump, even though Trump’s chosen candidate, Scott, fell short. McConnell is the sort of D.C. swamp creature that Trump wins over voters by constantly colliding with. An 80-year-old lawmaker, McConnell will be the longest-ever serving Senate leader by the end of his latest term. McConnell is the Beltway establishment, with a grip on power that not even a failing midterm performance can undermine.
Trump’s power is in his willingness and ability to represent the voter forgotten by the establishment. If the anti-Trump establishment were smart, they would have elected Scott just to deprive the former president of a key foil the two-term hopeful will use to his advantage. Trump is a political bomb-thrower, with an ironclad base more drawn to him the more he’s ostracized by the D.C. elite. Liberals and establishment Republicans who think his base will turn on him just because a bunch of Beltway figures tell them to are delusional and learned nothing from 2016.