Mitch McConnell explicitly warned Senate Republicans not to challenge Joe Biden’s presidential win. But now that a dozen of his members are going there, the GOP leader is taking his thumb off the scale.
The Kentucky Republican actively sought to avoid a divisive circus over the election results, making his position well-known throughout the GOP conference. Yet senators and aides say he is not actively whipping his members to side against Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who are leading the electoral objections in the Senate. Instead, he’s offering guidance when it’s sought, fielding calls from at least half the Senate GOP conference, according to a source familiar with the matter.
McConnell told senators on a recent conference call that “this is a very difficult decision for each one of you, you each have to make it yourselves,” recounted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “‘I’ve voted twice on declarations of war.’ And he said, ‘this is right up there.’ But … there’s a lot of noise out there and I won’t judge anybody for their decision.’”
It’s the latest and highest-profile example of the GOP leader’s subtle-post election effort to lead the party as President Donald Trump fractures Republicans. Tuesday’s Georgia runoff races will determine whether McConnell is majority leader for two more years and may be as much a referendum on his moves over the past few weeks as they are on Trump’s erratic fight against the election results.
McConnell doesn’t criticize Trump, publicly or privately. But he is unmistakably steering his party in his own direction, perhaps more than ever before, and often away from the president’s whims.
The majority leader stuck to the Covid relief deal he negotiated with congressional leaders and the president’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, spurning Trump’s last-minute demand for $2,000 stimulus checks and spending cuts. He introduced a bill with Trump’s bigger checks, a repeal of tech liability protections and the establishment of an election fraud commission — but the Senate took no action on it and he rebuffed a House-passed bill boosting direct payments.
Instead McConnell convened a rare New Year’s Day session to override Trump’s veto on the annual defense bill, grinding the Senate through Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) procedural objections until Trump’s veto was vanquished. The end result of Trump’s final days in the White House will be smaller checks than he wanted, military bases stripped of their Confederate names against his wishes and confirmation of his electoral defeat on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
McConnell has “navigated a difficult job during difficult circumstances,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who attends McConnell’s leadership meetings. “There was an extended period of time when he said the president is entitled to take his case to the courts and to the states. He chose an appropriate moment to say that the election was over.”
Meanwhile, the contrast in leadership styles with McConnell’s GOP counterpart is stark; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has spoken approvingly of the Republican move to force a debate over the election’s certification.
And it’s evident that the GOP’s shift against him is driving Trump mad. The president tweeted Monday: “The ‘Surrender Caucus’ within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our Nation.” Yet Trump has yet to single McConnell out on the matter, even after raging last week against the GOP leader’s decision to shut down an effort to triple the size of the stimulus checks.
This week, McConnell is having plenty of private chats with his members but leaving the public arguments to the likes of Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Nonetheless, as Senate majority leader, he will oversee the bulk of his conference rejecting Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him.
“He’s letting everybody reach their own conclusion here. That’s very much his leadership style on issues like this, is to not say much. I think he hopes we don’t have too many people vote to do this,” said one Republican senator aligned with McConnell. “Trying to convince people right now wouldn’t produce much of a result when you could just give them time to think about it.”
Republicans also said that if McConnell became the face of the resistance to the election results challenge on Jan. 6, it could backfire and dissuade Trump’s Georgia supporters from going to the polls on Jan. 5.
Several GOP senators who have signed onto the effort to contest the election results said they had not spoken to McConnell about the matter, including freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana. And a few minutes after being sworn in, new Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming declined to discuss what GOP leaders’ reactions have been to her position: “A happy day for us. It’s been wonderful.”
“The leader’s priority is always to keep the majority. And I respect that,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said when asked if McConnell had made a mistake by coming out against the effort. “Some of the greatest Super Bowl champions had a day of division.”
McConnell has clashed with Hawley in the past, after the Missouri senator took down one of Trump’s judicial appointees. He also stifled Hawley’s attempts with Democrats to approve the House-passed $2,000 checks bill last week, arguing the proposal was “socialism for rich people.”
But there’s been little direct friction between the two on the election other than McConnell asking Hawley to explain his plan on a conference call last week that Hawley didn’t attend. Even then, McConnell was merely asking Hawley to explain his plan and was not challenging him, according to a person on the call.
Last month, McConnell warned his caucus that challenging the election results would force a “terrible vote” for members since it could be viewed as a referendum on Trump. Republicans face a tough Senate map in 2022, and Wednesday’s vote could be particularly uncomfortable for senators up for reelection.
Trump is already encouraging a primary challenge against Senate Majority Whip John Thune, after the South Dakota Republican predicted that the vote would go down like a “shot dog.” But on Monday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) backed certification of the election results, a signal that Republicans on the front lines in the next election cycle are comfortable acknowledging that Biden won.
Still, the president has not completely hid his frustration with McConnell for recognizing Biden’s win. Trump recently sent around a slide to GOP lawmakers, where he took credit for McConnell’s victory against Democrat Amy McGrath. He later tweeted that he “saved at least 8 Republican Senators, including Mitch, from losing in the last Rigged (for President) Election.”
“I don’t think he’s enjoying it,” said a second Republican senator of McConnell’s role overseeing a split party. “He has to just make sure that this doesn’t splinter us all into several different factions.”