Donald Trump is facing weak support among Republicans for his calls to depose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and aides and allies say it’s forcing the former President to confront new limitations on his influence over the party.
In the 11 months that have passed since Trump first called for the Kentucky Republican to be ousted — suggesting shortly after his second Senate impeachment trial ended that it was time for the “unsmiling political hack” to be voted out of office — McConnell’s authority among Senate Republicans has neither waned nor has he faced the onslaught of blistering attacks from GOP hopefuls that Trump has been pining for.
Most candidates who have nabbed Trump’s endorsement have refused to declare war on McConnell, who remains a powerful fundraiser and influential party figure in his own right, while those who are still angling for the former President’s support have also stopped short of staking out opposition to the powerful senator from Kentucky. Trump’s ineffective attempt, thus far, to challenge the top Senate Republican has forced him to temper his criteria as he aims to be a kingmaker in this year’s midterm elections, according to multiple people close to the former President who spoke to WEBICNEWS on the condition of anonymity.
Some of his aides have warned him that requiring unequivocal opposition to McConnell to secure or maintain his support is incompatible with his broader objectives — a warning that Trump himself appears to be considering. The former President has not rescinded his endorsements of candidates who have stopped short of opposing McConnell and previously earned Trump’s support, and he continues to privately consider endorsements for other candidates who have openly mused about reelecting McConnell if they make it into the Senate, according to a person familiar with Trump’s thinking.
“In working for Trump for a while now, this is going to be a litmus test for him. But at the end of the day, whether a candidate says he won’t vote for McConnell as leader or is generally critical of current party leadership is likely to be considered one and the same,” said one Trump adviser.
The modified condition comes as numerous Senate Republican hopefuls who have cozied up to Trump in pursuit of his endorsement have either sidestepped questions about McConnell altogether or declined to rule out supporting his reelection as leader if they make it through their primaries and the general election.
In the Alabama Senate primary, where Trump has endorsed ultraconservative Congressman Mo Brooks, a Brooks campaign aide said the candidate’s position has not changed since he told Politico in early December that he would back McConnell for another two-year leadership term “if he’s the most conservative.”
In North Carolina, Trump’s preferred candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, has declined to answer questions about McConnell’s leadership abilities. Budd campaign spokesman Jonathan Felts pointed to a statement he made last month that artfully dodged any criticism of McConnell by saying the congressman’s “only thought on future leadership elections is that we want to do our part to ensure that the Republican leader is the majority leader.”
“We’ve been pretty consistent on day one on that front,” Felts said.
Across several other primaries, Republican candidates have also ignored Trump’s entreaties for McConnell’s ouster. Straddling a desire to earn the former President’s support without jeopardizing potential assistance from the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund later on, they have limited their criticism to veiled barbs at the “establishment” or refuse to even answer questions about McConnell.
In the Senate primary in Ohio, for example, where four candidates are jockeying for Trump’s endorsement, no one has outright said they would decline to reelect McConnell to his leadership post if elected. Candidates Josh Mandel and Jane Timken have danced around such questions, while J.D. Vance has described the Kentucky Republican as “a little out of touch with the base” but also stopped short of saying he would oppose him for leadership.
“Look, man, I’ve been the only person in the Ohio Senate race who has actually been willing to criticize leadership … but I do think we’ve got a ground up problem as much as we’ve got a top down,” Vance told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon during an appearance on his podcast last Thursday.
One Trump adviser who requested anonymity for fear of retribution said the Ohio primary “proves that McConnell is impenetrable,” adding that it is “a waste of time for Trump to be channeling all of his anger towards McConnell, who shares his goal of winning back the Senate.”
“You have four candidates who would seemingly do anything for [Trump’s] endorsement and yet not one of them is willing to stand up and say, ‘It’s time for McConnell to go.’ That says a lot about McConnell’s survivability and it also shows that there are limitations to President Trump’s influence,” the adviser said.
So far, only two high-profile Senate Republican candidates have sided with Trump in his battle against the senator: ex-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who has accused McConnell of “working against President Trump and the MAGA movement,” and Alaska US Senate hopeful Kelly Tshibaka, who definitively ruled out supporting McConnell as leader in a statement last month. WEBICNEWS reached out to a dozen other Senate GOP hopefuls who are running as pro-Trump candidates to see where they stand on McConnell and heard back from only three, all of whom declined to comment.
Greitens, who is hoping Republican primary voters will look past the allegations of sexual assault and campaign finance misconduct that led to his resignation as governor in 2018, said it would be difficult for McConnell to redeem himself in his eyes unless he backed “full forensic audits” of the 2020 election in a handful of battleground states where Trump has erroneously claimed that widespread fraud occurred.
“This is a very hard call that US senators are going to make,” he said of supporting McConnell in an interview with WEBICNEWS.
A statement from Arizona US Senate candidate Blake Masters’ campaign underscored how difficult the situation has become for Republican hopefuls who wish to earn Trump’s endorsement without drawing McConnell’s ire. “Blake will only vote for leadership that is serious about going on offense and actually legislating an America First agenda. He’ll meet with anyone running for leader, including Mitch McConnell, and will vote for whoever is most serious about not just stopping the left’s agenda, but also advancing our own,” the statement read.
At least one Senate candidate who was recruited and endorsed by Trump has also received McConnell’s backing and is not expected to turn against the Senate minority leader, according to a person close to his campaign. Georgia’s Herschel Walker, the retired NFL running back who is challenging Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, was endorsed by Trump last September after the former President urged him to enter the race and “is considered a reasonable exception” to his litmus test on McConnell, according to a person close to Trump. McConnell endorsed Walker in late October, describing him as “the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock and help us take back the Senate.”