Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
While former President Donald Trump continues to peddle lies about election fraud and attack fellow Republicans who refuse to go along with his conspiracy theories, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to point the GOP in a different direction.
To keep this split within the GOP from becoming an unbridgeable chasm, McConnell has to tread carefully and avoid a destructive intraparty war with Trump that could thwart the GOP’s chances at gaining control of Congress in 2022.
Trump so far has endorsed several candidates who have parroted his lies about widespread voter fraud in 2020.
McConnell, on the other hand, continues to coolly push back, telling CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday, “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.”
For McConnell, this is not merely his theoretical take on democracy, but good politics.
McConnell, who admitted the Senate GOP “nominated some unelectable candidates” in 2010, knows that peddling lies about election fraud is not the way to win – especially when President Joe Biden’s handling of inflation, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Covid-19 could be a boon for Republican candidates.
Last year, during the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, Trump ended up putting the two incumbent Republicans, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, in a corner; they were forced to either echo his baseless claims of voter fraud or risk losing the support of his followers. The two chose to follow Trump – and lost, handing the Senate majority over to the Democrats.
It turns out that when the President of the United States tells people that their vote doesn’t count, enough of them will believe the lies and decide not to vote, which can throw a Senate election or two in the other party’s favor.
And if there’s anything that proves elections have consequences, it’ll be the upcoming Senate vote to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer – with the two Georgia Democrats helping to confirm a new liberal justice who could potentially sit on the Supreme Court bench for decades.
This isn’t the first time McConnell has seen Republicans tank their own races. In 2010, when the GOP gained 63 House seats and six Senate seats, the party made two unforced errors with the disastrous Senate campaigns in Delaware and Nevada.
In Delaware, Republican candidate Christine O’Donnell had to run a commercial denying she was a witch (after admitting to dabbling in witchcraft) while Sharron Angle, who was running in Nevada, was extremely press-shy. Indeed, as the Republican National Committee communications director at the time, I can attest to wasting time and resources dealing with these doomed campaigns.
In 2012, the campaigns of both Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana tanked after they made inflammatory comments about rape and abortion, costing the GOP a further two seats.
These candidates, all of whom found themselves mired in bizarre controversies, were seemingly unable and unwilling to try to appeal to a broader set of voters.
So while McConnell is on the same page as Trump on some candidates, such as Georgia’s Herschel Walker, or staying neutral on others, he is mindful to avoid the mistakes of the past in order to secure a Republican Senate majority in 2022.
And while Republicans are favored to make significant gains, McConnell is playing it safe, putting the GOP’s chances to take back the Senate at “50-50.”
With Trump promising more political rallies, we know we will hear more “stop the steal” rhetoric. For Trump followers, the lack of clear political goals (other than fundraising) and policy objectives may not matter. The rhetoric itself serves as cotton candy for a certain segment of the Republican base, with the airing of grievances over 2020 causing a temporary sugar high.
But this strategy could be damaging to the Republican Party at large. Talk of a rigged election could cause Trump followers to stay home on Election Day. And it certainly doesn’t help secure the votes of moderates and independents.
A growing number of Americans disapprove of Biden, believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and are consumed by issues such as inflation, supply chain disruptions, rising violent crime and border crossings. McConnell knows these are the issues that will drive voters to the polls – not something that happened, or, more accurately, did not happen – two years ago.
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Focusing on these issues avoids depressing part of the GOP base or alienating independent voters who want to see candidates focus on the problems that affect their everyday lives.
That may put McConnell at odds with Trump from time to time. But it’s much firmer ground for Republican candidates who want to win in November.
And McConnell knows that.