Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was on a mission. It was late February, and two vulnerable Republican senators facing voters this fall were pushing a bill that had generated opposition from conservatives but was important to their states – and their own reelections.
So on the morning of February 27, as Washington was coming to grips with the coronavirus, McConnell took Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana to the White House where they made the case to Trump to get behind a public lands bill. Trump quickly got in line, and quipped to his budget chief, Russell Vought: “Sorry, Russ,” according to sources familiar with the episode.
Four months later, McConnell set aside precious floor time and scheduled votes on the bill even though it was not on the radar for much of Washington, paving the way for its passage – and for Gardner and Daines to cut campaign ads touting the achievement.
“Not only was it the right thing to do from a good government point of view, but sure – it ought to help Cory and Steve, they did a lot of work on it,” McConnell told CNN this week.
The episode illustrated McConnell’s intense focus at holding onto his perch atop the Senate and keeping the majority in GOP hands, navigating one of the most tumultuous elections of his long political career while finding a way to take advantage of having a Republican in the White House – even one who has a penchant for putting GOP senators in a jam time and again.
Asked if he thinks Trump is a net positive for Senate Republican candidates on the ticket, McConnell would only say: “We’ll find out. That’s something that we’ll only know the day after the election.”
Even as he frequently sidesteps the latest Trump controversy, as he did Wednesday over the President’s stunning admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally played down the coronavirus, McConnell has enlisted Trump’s help in critical ways necessary to holding the Senate, including by privately persuading the President to take a step bolstering the standing of the GOP leader’s preferred candidate in Kansas, a move that helped him win a high-stakes primary last month.
And as he’s faced one of the toughest Senate maps in years, with 23 GOP seats in cycle compared to 12 for Democrats, the Kentucky Republican has tapped into his deep-pocketed donor network to pour millions to his well-funded super PAC and has sought to narrow Democrats’ online fundraising advantage by directing millions more to his vulnerable GOP colleagues. He reviews every ad that hits the airwaves in the key races on a daily basis, providing counsel and advice to his colleagues about the messaging for his party.
And with the power to set the schedule in the Senate, McConnell has taken steps to insulate his vulnerable members from the onslaught of Democratic attacks, culminating with a vote Thursday to take up a GOP economic recovery plan after the Republican leader has privately told his members in conference calls that such a vote is critical for Republican senators hoping to hang onto their seats in November.
In the Wednesday interview, McConnell said it’s “just a hugely challenging cycle to hold onto” the majority and said it’s a “50-50 situation,” arguing that races in Montana, Colorado, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Georgia are far too close to call.
“That’s why I describe it like a knife fight in an alley,” McConnell said of the battle for the Senate. “Everybody’s slugging it out.”
And that’s why his allies say McConnell can’t afford to be at odds with Trump, given the President’s popularity with the base and his habit at firing back at any perceived slight, creating politically damaging distractions and undercutting the GOP leader’s long-held view that the party’s best posture is to maintain unity.
But McConnell has found a way to use Trump’s help to his advantage: convincing him to help his preferred candidates who stand a better chance of winning in November.
On a monthly basis in the White House, McConnell walks Trump state-by-state through the Senate map – and one topic had been the subject of ample discussion with the President: The Kansas Senate primary. For much of the year, GOP leaders were fearful that if Kansas voters nominated staunch conservative Kris Kobach, Democrats would hold a major advantage at picking up the seat in the fall and significantly increase their chances at flipping the chamber.
Kobach’s rival in the primary, Rep. Roger Marshall, was the subject of attack ads waged by the conservative group Club for Growth, something that Republican leaders worried would pave the way for a Kobach primary win. So McConnell made a suggestion to Trump: Ask the Club for Growth to end that ad campaign.
Sitting in the Oval Office, Trump called up the group’s president, David McIntosh, put him on speakerphone in the Oval Office and delivered a blunt message: “Stop carving up” Marshall, Trump said, according to two sources with knowledge of the call. Trump told the group’s leader that McConnell was in the room listening.
Soon after, the Club for Growth stopped its massive ad campaign, and Marshall later emerged victorious in the primary, giving Republican leaders greater hope of retaining the seat in November and holding onto the Senate.
Recalling that episode on Wednesday, McConnell said that incident “was an example of him being cooperative,” referring to Trump.
“If you don’t nominate people who can appeal to the general election audience, you are going to lose,” McConnell said. “And so the President has been helpful in working with me and making sure we got the right people nominated.”
McConnell: Senators ‘in danger’ want stimulus bill
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, McConnell has been trying to stay aligned with the Trump administration through the course of Washington’s response, even after he has been condemned by Democrats for hitting “pause” for more relief measures following nearly $3 trillion in emergency aid that passed this spring.
In mid-July, McConnell signaled he was ready to move on another relief package – but after weeks of talks with the White House and with fellow GOP senators, the $1 trillion plan he unveiled prompted sharp pushback from a number of his colleagues and Trump declined to endorse it. McConnell never brought that bill forward for a vote, and allowed top Trump administration officials to try to seek a deal with Democratic leaders, something that yielded no result.
With millions still suffering from the economic crisis, and a number of his most vulnerable colleagues still eager to vote on a package, McConnell sought to unite his conference behind a new recovery bill. Along with top administration officials, McConnell convened daily conference calls with his colleagues over the August recess, hoping to get his party behind a slimmed-down proposal.
On private calls, some Republicans have been uncertain whether there should be a vote on a GOP bill that stands virtually no chance of becoming law.
But McConnell has been clear that there should be a vote and has said that he wants 51 of his colleagues to back the plan, something that would allow Republicans to argue that a majority of the Senate backs their approach even though it would fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster because of Democratic opposition to the plan.
On one call, McConnell told his colleagues that “100% of people that are up and are in any form of danger want a vote and want a successful vote,” according to a person on the call.
Democrats have accused McConnell of simply setting up the vote to help his most vulnerable members, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accusing McConnell of engaging in a “cynical exercise.”
Yet Republicans argue that McConnell is doing what he has to – both for the country and to protect his party heading into November.
Asked about McConnell’s focus on keeping the Senate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team who faces voters himself this fall, said: “I would say it’s a 24-7 operation for him. But that probably underestimates it.”
McConnell’s fundraising focus and plans to stay as leader
McConnell, himself, is on the ballot in November, facing Amy McGrath, a well-financed former fighter pilot and the underdog in the race. But even as he’s fending off a challenge from Democrats in his state, he is heavily focused on the key Senate seats in contention in the fall.
And he is regularly doing fundraising calls and Zoom meetings with donors to help his allied Senate Leadership Fund along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is surpassing its previous fundraising records. For the past decade, McConnell has cultivated a massive donor network, something he has done to help the Senate Leadership Fund raise $117 million in cash through the end of July, more than two-and-a-half times the amount in reserves at a similar point in the last cycle.
“There’s no way we would be where we are financially without Leader McConnell’s disciplined and tireless promotion of our efforts to hold the Senate,” said Steven Law, who runs the super PAC.
McConnell said the group has been a “huge help” in competing against Democratic outside groups, saying he spends a “reasonable amount of time” pointing out its existence to “people who think holding the Senate is important.”
Moreover, McConnell, along with Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have tried to close the gap and narrow the Democrats’ online fundraising advantage. And just this cycle alone, McConnell’s online fundraising has directed $3 million to his GOP colleagues, according to an adviser.
It’s that type of fundraising that has helped make the GOP leader a shoo-in to remain atop his perch in the Senate Republican Conference win or lose the majority, adding to his tenure as the longest-serving GOP leader in history, a position he’s held since 2007.
Asked if he would seek to stay as GOP leader for the full six years if he wins his seventh term in November, McConnell said: “The leadership elections are for two years. I’m definitely running again for another term, and we’ll see what the future holds.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.