GOP leader seeks to thwart a Trump backlash

Erica Werner
Associated Press

Washington — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is wrestling with an unenviable, arguably impossible task this election year: protecting Senate Republicans from the political upheaval caused by Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

If he fails it won’t be for lack of preparation, hard work and cold-blooded political calculation.

In many ways Trump’s polar opposite, the close-mouthed, deliberate, uncharismatic McConnell maneuvered into his dream job as majority leader just last year, and has been working every angle to ensure he hangs onto it even if a backlash against Trump provokes a Democratic tidal wave. If they keep the presidency, Democrats need to pick up four Senate seats to take back the majority.

For McConnell, 74, avoiding that outcome means running a Senate schedule designed to assist a handful of vulnerable GOP incumbents in states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio. He’s allowing them to take votes and stack up accomplishments on issues like opioid addiction that they can brag about to voters back home. “It’s certainly helped me,” said one of these lawmakers, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

It means having the foresight to push for an independent super PAC run by allies that is focused solely on Senate Republicans, built on a model that helped McConnell himself to a resounding re-election win in Kentucky two years ago. The Senate Leadership Fund, run by his former chief of staff Steven Law, announced this week it was reserving nearly $40 million in air time for the fall in five states.

And it means a delicate dance with Trump, whom he was quick to endorse in May, declaring that Trump had “won the old-fashioned way — he got more votes than anybody else.” The approach was markedly different from that of House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose hesitation before finally backing Trump provoked weeks of headlines on GOP infighting.

Since then McConnell has picked his moments on Trump. For two weeks running at his weekly Senate press conferences he refused to engage on questions about “the presidential candidate,” as he referred to Trump. This week, nobody asked. But in a series of interviews to promote his new memoir, “The Long Game,” McConnell has mostly answered directly and offered frank criticisms, declaring that Trump can’t win without improving his measly fundraising numbers, needs to stop criticizing people, start reading off a script, and in short behave like a “serious candidate.”

The two men have spoken privately on a number of occasions, and McConnell himself notes that Trump has started to become more scripted, whether or not that is a result of taking his advice. Allies say his handling of Trump is typical of the taciturn McConnell, who is preternaturally disciplined and focused on what he can control, tuning out what he cannot.