Former President Donald Trump is calling up his allies in the Senate, GOP sources tell CNN, and making a suggestion as he seeks to divert blame for – Republicans’ lackluster midterm performance: Take aim at Mitch McConnell.
Trump, who is facing a round of sharp criticism from inside his own party for hurting Republican candidates in the midterms, has instead sought to gin up opposition to McConnell ahead of leadership elections next week – even as the GOP leader has already locked down enough support to win another two years, which would make him the longest-serving Senate party leader in US history.
Yet McConnell is facing new dissension within the ranks as a faction of Senate Republicans are grumbling internally about the timing of the leadership elections next week and are now calling for a delay – something that several GOP sources and a member of Republican leadership have signaled is unlikely to happen.
The internal back-biting has prompted a new round of fears: That Republicans will be at odds over their future and hurt their ability to unite ahead of the December 6 runoff for the US Senate seat in Georgia. Some of Trump’s allies fear that his obsession with the Kentucky Republican will only undercut their campaign in Georgia, with memories still raw for many in the party who blame the former President for costing them two seats and the Senate majority in last year’s runoff in the Peach State.
But privately, Trump is trying to turn GOP anger toward McConnell.
In phone calls with allies, elected officials and incoming members of Congress, the former President has accused McConnell of spending recklessly in states where Republicans faced significant headwinds at the expense of candidates in more competitive contests. He and aides have specifically alluded to the Alaska Senate race, where the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund spent more than $5 million attacking a Trump-backed Republican challenger to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. That candidate, Kelly Tshibaka, appears poised to advance to a ranked choice runoff against Murkowski on November 23.
Trump has been extremely critical of McConnell’s decision to slash support for Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters over the summer, one aide noted. Masters currently trails incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly by more than 100,000 votes with 80% of votes counted, according to the latest CNN data.
Sources said Trump has conveyed these frustrations to nearly everyone he has spoken to since Tuesday, hoping it will translate into an onslaught of public criticism of McConnell.
“He isn’t making explicit asks, but he wants to see more Republicans holding Mitch accountable,” said a second person close to Trump.
McConnell’s office declined to comment to CNN for this story.
But it was McConnell’s super PAC, that was the biggest spender in all Senate races in either party – dropping more than $280 million in ads along with its affiliated nonprofit group. Trump’s outside group spent a small fraction of that in Senate races.
In the Arizona race, McConnell told CNN last month that he and the major GOP donor, Peter Thiel, had a discussion over “resource allocation” as other outside groups went onto to prop up Masters. Plus, it was McConnell’s group that poured roughly $30 million into Ohio to bolster Trump’s-endorsed candidate, J.D. Vance, who was struggling against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan but ultimately won convincingly.
Steven Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund, told CNN the group tried to put a concerted focus on Biden and Democrats this cycle. But he suggested that Trump’s emergence on the campaign trail helped Democrats late in the cycle.
“Keeping the focus on Joe Biden and Democrats who had voted for inflationary spending and who supported soft on crime policies, those are the priorities,” Law said. “And to the extent that there’s any distraction from that, it diminishes our ability to drive home that argument.”
Calls for leadership election delay
Senate Republicans next week are poised for a series of tense meetings. They are expected to meet behind closed doors next Tuesday for their first in-person meeting since the midterms.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is calling for a delay in the leadership elections, believes that Republicans first need to have a discussion about “why the results were what they were and what we are going to do about it,” a Rubio adviser said. The adviser said that Trump did not encourage Rubio to make the public plea for a delay.
“First we need to make sure that those who want to lead us are genuinely committed to fighting for the priorities & values of the working Americans (of every background) who gave us big wins in states like Florida,” Rubio tweeted.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who opposes McConnell’s leadership bid, also tweeted that Republicans should delay the elections so as not to “disenfranchise” Herschel Walker, who is running in the Georgia runoff that will take place after the elections.
And three GOP senators – Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah – sent a letter urging members of the GOP conference to postpone leadership elections scheduled for Wednesday, underscoring Senate Republicans’ frustration with the outcome of the 2022 elections.
“We are all disappointed that a Red Wave failed to materialize, and there are multiple reasons it did not,” says the letter. “We need to have serious discussions within our conference as to why and what we can do to improve our chances in 2024.”
Despite the push to delay, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said the leadership elections will go on as scheduled.
“We look forward to meeting next week with our new and returning members. I expect a full and open discussion beginning at Tuesday’s policy lunch on our path forward. On Wednesday we will meet again for our scheduled conference for elections,” said Barrasso, who oversees the leadership elections, in a message to the conference that was obtained by CNN.
“I welcome the questions and points made in the letter circulated by Senators Rick Scott, Lee and Johnson,” he wrote.
While the path to a Republican majority is narrow, Johnson and Lee won their reelection races in 2022. Scott serves in leadership now as the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.
Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn is “supportive” of Johnson running for the No. 4 spot, Republican policy committee chair, according to her spokesperson.
“Someone suggested I run. I didn’t reject the idea and then rumors started to fly,” Johnson told CNN about a potential leadership bid. “My primary objective is to have robust and organized discussions within the conference prior to any leadership election and develop a more collaborative model for the conference.”
But McConnell allies say delaying an election where the GOP leader is not being challenged will only intensify the internal divisions.
“We need to move on,” one Senate GOP source said. “McConnell will win.”