The Republican president launched his opening salvo against the Republican Senate majority leader on a sleepy Wednesday in August.
“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?” Donald Trump tweeted. Less than 24 hours later, he sent another one lamenting that McConnell “couldn’t get it done” on health care. Six hours after that, there was a third: Half chiding (“get back to work”), half encouraging (“You can do it!”). The last tweet was soon followed by a comment to reporters that if McConnell isn't able to pass a new health care law or push through tax reform or an infrastructure plan, then it may be appropriate for journalists to ask Trump if McConnell should step aside.
As Republicans try to move forward from their stunning defeat on health care, Trump has made clear he believes the blame should be placed on the Senate, and particularly on the Senate’s Republican leader.
It’s not the first time McConnell has played the role of bogeyman within his own party. He’s starred in campaign ads for GOP primary challengers for several cycles now, portrayed as the evil puppet master hiding behind the screen, undermining a conservative agenda from within.
The thing is that, historically, McConnell has proved largely resistant to efforts to tar and feather him.
Primary challengers have cast McConnell as a symbol of Washington’s dysfunction, and sitting senators have bashed him to burnish their conservative credentials. But those bombardments have caused little political grief for McConnell, who has easily held onto both his Senate seat and his leadership position. And strategists who have worked on Republican campaigns are skeptical Trump’s latest onslaught will be any more problematic for McConnell — or give the president any leverage over the apparently Teflon majority leader.
“Remember Marlin Stutzman?” replied one GOP consultant when asked about Trump’s latest tweets. In 2016, then Rep. Stutzman ran for Senate in Indiana, facing off in a primary against Rep. Todd Young, McConnell’s favored candidate. In an ad, Stutzman attacked Young as “bought and paid for,” showing an image of “McConnell Industries” as the controlling force.
Stutzman lost the primary by 34 percentage points, with McConnell-affiliated groups partially to thank.
Stutzman is the most dramatic example, but he wasn’t the only Republican to come up short running an anti-McConnell campaign. In 2014, Milton Wolf, a Kansas doctor who challenged Sen. Pat Roberts, lost by 7%. Chris McDaniel actually beat Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in a primary by half a point — but fell short of the required 50% mark, and ultimately lost in a runoff.
“It’s like a siren song of an effective message, and they get trapped by it,” said GOP consultant Chris Wilson, who worked on now-Sen. Mike Lee’s campaign in 2010 — the last time a Republican challenger defeated an incumbent senator in a primary and went on to win the seat. In that race, Wilson said, their focus was all on the incumbent, Sen. Bob Bennett. Attacks on McConnell “didn’t enter into any of our communications.”
Attacking McConnell riles up a certain segment of Republican voters, something Trump could be angling for now in the hope that it might in some way pressure the Senate to revive the failed health care bill. But in Senate races, Wilson and others say they’ve seen little evidence that talking about McConnell translates into votes.
“It’s like you get a sugar high from it but it doesn’t make a difference,” said Wilson.
Of course, the president has a much larger megaphone with which to attack the majority leader as a symbol of Washington’s dysfunction than a Senate primary challenger would have. But it’s not clear whether Trump’s tweets will have any impact.
“One thing that I really respect about McConnell is his willingness to be able to be in the firing line like that — I mean, he knows that the role that he plays is going to be demonized and scapegoated and he’s got the broad back to sort of stand up and take that kind of incoming fire,” said GOP consultant Jesse Benton, who managed McConnell’s 2014 Senate race and fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s race in 2010, when Paul succeeded in toppling a McConnell-backed Republican in the open-seat primary.
National popularity doesn’t matter much for the majority leader, who holds his position at the favor of Senate Republicans and is elected at the pleasure of Kentuckians.
“He makes sure he maintains the respect of his Senate colleagues and he stays strong at home,” Benton said.
When Benton ran Paul’s first Senate campaign, he said, they “took great steps to make clear he wasn’t running against Mitch McConnell” — despite the clear ideological and tactical differences between the two.
Indeed, in the wake of Trump’s tweets, some Republican senators were quick to publicly embrace McConnell as their leader.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr “absolutely supports McConnell,” spokesperson Rebecca Glover told BuzzFeed News. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch deemed McConnell “the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges,” in a tweet, adding “I fully support him.” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — the two most vulnerable incumbent senators in 2018 — also took to Twitter to voice their support for McConnell.
A flood of other Republican senators — including Sens. Bob Corker, Johnny Isakson, Susan Collins, John Cornyn, Cory Gardner, and Pat Roberts — rallied to McConnell's defense Friday morning.
A spokesperson for McConnell declined to comment.
But Trump’s public dragging could spur primary challengers ahead of next year’s elections to again try taking on McConnell.
This dynamic has already developed in the Alabama Senate primary campaign, which ends with an election on Tuesday. With one week to go, Trump endorsed the incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange. Strange is also McConnell’s preferred candidate (several strategists raised their eyebrows at the quick turnaround between the endorsement and the attacks on McConnell). Groups attached to the Senate majority leader have spent millions backing Strange and attacking his challenger, Rep. Mo Brooks.
Brooks, who told BuzzFeed News late last month he wants to “terminate” McConnell as majority leader, has used Trump’s attacks on McConnell to question his endorsement of Strange.
“I agree completely, Mr. President,” Brooks tweeted after the President’s first salvo against the majority leader. “McConnell & Strange don't support your agenda. I do. Reconsider endorsement?”
Brooks hashtagged that and subsequent tweets #DitchMitch.
Some strategists were skeptical. “Mitch McConnell’s not on the ballot in any of these races, so making the race about Mitch McConnell isn’t gonna do much,” said a conservative Republican strategist, adding that McConnell is also likely unknown to many voters.
“Most voters don’t even know who their member of Congress is,” the strategist said.
Trump’s public antagonism, however, could help candidates with smaller platforms to more effectively use McConnell to attack their opponents.
One Republican consultant who worked on a primary challenge to an incumbent in which McConnell was used as an attack line said that — faced with the same choices this cycle — “I would double down on anti-McConnell rhetoric because it has more of a voice.”
“I think it would be even more effective,” the consultant said.
Yet others remain skeptical that Trump’s tweets will have any impact, either on McConnell’s leadership or on insurgent campaigns.
“I would prefer Luther Strange in the Senate and a couple throwaway tweets in a forgettable week in August,” said the first Republican strategist.
Emma Loop contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with additional comment from Republican senators Friday morning.
Sen. Mike Lee was the last Republican challenger to defeat an incumbent senator in a primary and go on to win the seat. He was not the last GOP challenger to defeat an incumbent senator.