But McConnell doesn’t see his clash with the former President emerging as much of an issue – at least not yet.
In an interview with CNN, the GOP leader noted that he and Trump are on the same page in backing the same candidate in two of the hottest Senate races – Nevada and Georgia. He has stayed neutral in Alabama where Trump endorsed a primary contender. And the Kentucky Republican believes that no matter which GOP candidate emerges from intraparty battles in Pennsylvania, North Carolina or Ohio, his party will be well-positioned to hold the GOP seats there.
Only in Alaska, where Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is fighting to hang onto her seat after voting to convict Trump for inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol, are McConnell and Trump at sharp odds, though that seat is almost certain to stay in GOP hands. And in Missouri, McConnell is closely watching the primary to determine if he needs to engage his super PAC to try to knock off a potentially weak general election candidate – with many in the party nervous over former Gov. Eric Greitens – though Trump has not yet endorsed anyone there.
But one issue continues to percolate over the party: Whether the 2020 election was rigged and stolen, a lie that Trump continues to peddle and which a growing number of GOP candidates are embracing to curry favor with the former President.
McConnell had a warning of sorts to Republican candidates running on Trump’s false claims.
“It’s important for candidates to remember we need to respect the results of our democratic process unless the court system demonstrates that some significant fraud occurred that would change the outcome,” McConnell said.
The delicate dance underscores the stakes for the 2022 midterm elections. While Republicans have the most favorable environment in years, buoyed by President Joe Biden’s sinking approval ratings, historical trends and voter anxiety over Covid-19 and the economy, the GOP knows full well that battle for control of the Senate remains on a knife’s edge – and that any single factor could upend a majority-making race.
And that single factor most certainly could be Trump.
“I still say it’s 50-50,” McConnell said, assessing the GOP chances to take back the Senate. Comparing Biden’s first midterm election to then-President Barack Obama’s in 2010, McConnell recalled that the Senate GOP at the time “nominated some unelectable candidates.” But he noted that Republicans only had 40 seats at the beginning of that cycle, compared to 50 now.
“It took us six years to climb out of that hole,” McConnell said of 2010. “We’re not in a hole now.”
“I think from an atmospheric point of view it’s highly likely to be a situation where the wind is at our backs,” he added.
Yet Democrats say McConnell has issues of his own making. He rallied Republicans in opposition to Democratic efforts to overhaul election laws, in an attempt to beat back restrictive actions taken by GOP-led states, and he even bungled remarks last week when talking about turnout among Black voters, forcing a senator with a penchant for staying furiously on message to clarify his statements amid a stinging backlash over his comments.
Asked about any concerns that his handling of the voting issue could turn off minorities in the midterms, McConnell shot back, saying: “It’s just as likely to be a liability for Democrats as it is for us,” citing support for voter ID laws, for example.
“I think I can pretty confidently say, we won’t lose any elections over that issue, anywhere in the country,” McConnell said. “People are concerned about a wholly different set of concerns. Inflation, an out-of-control border, Afghanistan withdrawal, the controversy over covid. I mean, the thought that a single Senate race in America would be decided over that issue strikes me as being wildly out of touch with what the American people are interested in.”
Courting governors despite Trump’s wrath
Other potential clashes with Trump could still yet occur.
McConnell is still pining for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey – whom Trump continues to rail on for certifying Biden’s 2020 victory there – to run against freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.
And he has courted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan – who has long been sharply critical of the former President – to run against Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat.
Ducey continues to publicly say he’s not interested in running, while Hogan has yet to express serious interest in a Senate bid. McConnell said, “I just don’t know” if they’ll mount campaigns.
“Well, they’d both be ideal candidates, for obvious reasons,” McConnell said of Hogan and Ducey. “Both enjoy high approval ratings, and I think would make both those races instantly competitive.”
But in a blow to McConnell last year, another Republican governor bowed out, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, despite heavy lobbying by the GOP leader and other senators, a development he called “disappointing.” In the interview, McConnell singled out another candidate, Chuck Morse, the state Senate president who plans to jump into the race to take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in the fall.
“We think New Hampshire is going to be much more receptive to Republicans as well, and we think we’ll have a good candidate there,” McConnell said.
Yet just last week Sununu gave the GOP another headache, telling the Washington Examiner that he was informed by multiple GOP senators that a Republican majority would be nothing more than a “roadblock” to Biden in the next two years, a chief reason why he passed on the bid.
Biden cited Sununu’s comments to rail on Republicans at his press conference last week. And McConnell refused to tell reporters last week what the GOP agenda would be if his party were to take back the Senate, saying instead the election will be a referendum on Biden.
Asked why Senate Republicans didn’t have an election-year agenda, McConnell told CNN: “I think it’s important for every candidate running next year to say what he or she is for.”
Citing his support for the infrastructure law, a measure to bolster US competitiveness with China and new efforts to overhaul a 19th-century law governing how Congress counts states’ electoral votes, McConnell said: “That’s going to be the guiding philosophy if we have divided government for the last few years in the President’s term to try to look for things we can agree on, and work on those.”
GOP leader doesn’t rule out engaging in Missouri primary
The six Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 are currently held by three Democrats in Nevada, Georgia and Arizona and three Republicans in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden narrowly won five of those states in 2020 and lost the sixth, North Carolina, by about a point.
Yet another state is on McConnell’s radar: Missouri.
That’s because Greitens, the former governor, is running for Senate after resigning in disgrace in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and blackmail. (Greitens admitted to an extramarital affair but denied any attempt at blackmail.)
The fear: Greitens will emerge victorious in a crowded primary only to be rejected by more middle-of-the-road voters in a general election, giving Democrats an improbable win in a red state – much the way Democrat Claire McCaskill won over the late Republican Todd Akin a decade ago. Greitens has aligned himself with Trump in the primary, attacking the integrity of the 2020 election, and calling for the Senate GOP to oust McConnell from his leadership position.
“Missouri is potentially challenging depending on the outcome in the primary,” McConnell said candidly, without identifying Greitens by name.
McConnell would not say if his well-funded super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, would oppose Greitens and spend money in the primary if he further separates himself from the pack of other GOP candidates, including Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, attorney Mark McCloskey and Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long.
“All I’ll say about Missouri at this point is we’re keeping our eye on it,” McConnell said.
For McConnell, there have been two potential clashes with Trump that worked themselves out – in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
After Trump quickly got behind former NFL star Herschel Walker, a former Georgia Bulldog running back, to run in Georgia – many Republicans were anxious, nervous about damaging allegations from his past, including threatening violence against his ex-wife.
But Walker’s ability to raise cash and put together a solid campaign team, seemed to win over McConnell, who now backs the former football star and sees the race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock as neck-and-neck. Walker’s campaign says he’s “dedicating his life” to helping individuals struggling with mental health.
“I looked into Herschel Walker’s record – I’m entirely comfortable with him,” McConnell said when asked about the candidate’s past. “We believe he starts his race dead even, pretty unusual against the incumbent anywhere in the country. And I think when you see his finance report, it’ll be impressive as well.”
One potential intraparty problem – Trump’s endorsement of Army veteran Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania – became void when the Senate GOP candidate suspended his campaign after a judge awarded Parnell’s estranged wife primary custody of the couple’s children after she accused him of spousal and child abuse, allegations he denied.
Now a bunch of Republican candidates, including celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, former hedge fund executive David McCormick and former US ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands and others are fighting to be the front-runner in the open race.
“In terms of Pennsylvania, I think we have an embarrassment of riches,” McConnell said. “Maybe riches literally given the amount of money being spent up there.”
In Alaska, the situation is different, McConnell notes.
“We’re going to be all in Alaska helping Lisa, and that’s one place where the former President and I have a disagreement,” he said, noting that the National Republican Senatorial Committee and his super PAC would be prepared to help Murkowski if necessary.
Murkowski has come under fire because of her vote to convict Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection. Among the foes she’s facing is a Trump-backed Republican, Kelly Tshibaka, who told CNN last year: “We don’t know the outcome of the 2020 election.” In December, the former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner said that she wouldn’t support McConnell as GOP leader if she won. Trump then blasted out Tshibaka’s statement on his website.
“People in Alaska have to decide whether that’s a terribly relevant issue to them,” said McConnell, who endured Trump’s wrath last year after pointedly blaming the former President for the Capitol Hill riot attack despite having voted to acquit him in his impeachment trial.
Republican candidates run on Trump’s election lie
A number of Senate GOP candidates across the country have followed Trump’s lead in trying to sow doubt about Trump’s loss in 2020. Missouri’s Long and Hartzler, North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd and Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks all voted not to certify two key states that Biden won. Trump has rewarded Brooks and Budd with his endorsement.
In Ohio, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Bernie Moreno said that it was “stolen” from Trump, while former Ohio Republican party chairwoman Jane Timken said “widespread fraud” was “swept under the bus” and investment banker Mike Gibbons said he doesn’t know what happened. In Arizona, Blake Masters, a protege of tech billionaire Peter Thiel, said he thinks Trump won and solar energy entrepreneur Jim Lamon has sued to challenge Trump’s loss.
Some of the candidates – Lamon, Moreno and Long – are echoing the false claim that the election was rigged in their latest advertising.
While McConnell suggested that candidates embrace the truth about the elections, he avoided directly criticizing candidates who have promoted the conspiracy – and wouldn’t address Brooks’ role in firing up the crowd at the “Stop the Steal” rally hours before the Capitol attack on January 6.
“I think the voters of these states are going to make these decisions, as well they should, and I think every state in America will accurately count the votes and certify who won,” he said when asked about Brooks.
But these Senate Republican candidates could very well become members of McConnell’s conference, which the veteran Kentuckian will once again try to lead in the next Congress spanning 2023-2024. If his GOP colleagues elect him again, McConnell will be the longest-serving Senate party leader in history.
Asked if he would attempt to stay on as leader through the end of his Senate term, which ends in January 2027, McConnell wouldn’t say.
“Well, I’m gonna be running again (for leader) in November,” McConnell said. “And we’ll see what happens later.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.