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Why Is Mitch McConnell Still In Charge?

Having no apparent priorities or vision, McConnell has failed to unite his caucus behind any coherent message.


The role of the Senate minority leader requires a master tactician when the chamber is in session and a charismatic strategist when an election is on the line. Mitch McConnell is only one of these things and not the one his party desperately needs over the next six months. He has already announced his intention to step down from leadership but not until after November’s vote, leaving Republicans undermanned in the campaign underway. Whatever their sense of loyalty, their chances will be better if they replace him now.

The problem is one of both style and substance. The 81-year-old’s health problems and lapses during public appearances would make him an ineffective spokesman in any cycle, let alone one where Republicans seek to make President Joe Biden’s similar issues a major liability. But even were he at the peak of his powers, McConnell’s core beliefs would still preclude him from effectively supporting his side.

On policy, he is badly misaligned with the GOP and its standard bearer. His attempt to foist a badly negotiated non-solution to the border crisis on his caucus was a disaster and just one example of how his enthusiasm for the uniparty’s open-ended funding of Ukraine outpaced his interest in his own party’s priorities. He simply does not agree with Donald Trump on the issues likely to animate the campaign. He is a free trader who cannot make the case for tariffs. He is weak on immigration, allied with big business, and expansive in his vision for the nation’s foreign policy commitments.

While disagreement with a presidential nominee always poses a challenge, here the problem is more serious. Trump can be a formidable, perhaps once-in-a-generation campaigner but also his own worst enemy. Elites may not control many votes, but they often determine how a campaign’s message is received, funded, and implemented. The GOP, in disarray in so many ways, lacks prominent and disciplined messengers. A credible Senate leader would be a major asset. McConnell is missing in action and a liability if and when he speaks.

As important, the Senate itself hangs in the balance. Most analysts expect Republicans to fall inevitably into a majority thanks to the races in play, which offer them 50 seats almost by default (assuming wins by Josh Hawley, Rick Scott, and Ted Cruz, all of whom hold comfortable leads in reliably red states). What are the odds that Democrats can retain all five of their vulnerable seats in Montana, Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania and also sweep three open seats in Arizona, Maryland, and Michigan?

Well, last week’s New York Times polling, which showed Trump leading Biden in most swing states, found Democrats nonetheless leading in every Senate race. In Nevada, Trump leads Biden by 12, but the Democrat leads the Senate race by 2. In Arizona, Trump leads by 7, but the Democrat leads by 4. In Pennsylvania, Trump leads by 3, the Democrat by 5. In Wisconsin, the one swing state with Biden ahead (by 2), the Democrat leads the Senate race by 9.

The Times found Trump leading in Michigan by 7, but the RealClearPolitics polling average has the Senate race tilting narrowly to the Democrats. The Times did not even poll Ohio, which is considered squarely in Trump’s column, but RCP has the Senate Democrat ahead by 5. In Montana, a deep-red Trump state, RCP has the Democrat ahead by 6. In short, if the election were held today, with a winner at the top of the ticket and a historically favorable map, Republicans would still fail to get beyond 50 in the Senate.

This should sound familiar because it has been the story of the last two Republican efforts at a Senate majority. The Senate went to the Democrats in 2020 when seats flipped in both Colorado and Arizona and incumbent Republicans managed to lose not one but two runoffs in Georgia. Then came the 2022 midterms and the “red wave” that never was. McConnell was that debacle’s author, proudly refusing to give GOP Senate candidates anything to run on. The unpopularity of incumbent Democrats, he insisted, should be the sole focus. Republicans failed to flip a single seat in overwhelmingly favorable political conditions, actually losing a Pennsylvania seat instead.

Throughout, having no apparent priorities or vision and disdaining those his party increasingly stands for, McConnell has failed to unite his caucus behind any coherent message. Once again, he is neither equipping Republican candidates with a positive agenda nor providing the air cover that comes with the elusive appearance that elected representatives in Washington have a plan. Will this be enough to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Recent history suggests yes.

It is difficult to decipher the logic behind McConnell remaining at his post when Senate Republicans have so many better options. Perhaps the best explanation is that, were replacement to occur now, the caucus would have to elevate someone from the New Right who represents the party’s future and can best deliver in the campaign. Then again, that seems a fairly good argument against waiting.

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