No matter how much President Donald Trump taunts Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader’s position is secure, thanks largely to a powerful super PAC that has plowed millions into Senate campaigns, ensuring the loyalty of his Republican caucus.
The Senate Leadership Fund, one of two outside groups run by McConnell loyalists, spent nearly $86 million in the November 2016 election to benefit Republicans. That made it the third largest outside spender, trailing only the super PACS that backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential primary contender Jeb Bush.
McConnell has remained silent about Trump’s pillorying, but Steven Law, the super PAC’s president and a former chief of staff to McConnell made it clear the Kentucky lawmaker commands his own power orbit. The Senate Leadership Fund, Law noted, is off to its strongest fund raising start in an off election year — amid worries about Trump.
“With all the chaos and dysfunction that we’ve seen from the White House, there’s just a very strong recognition of the importance of a disciplined, functioning Senate majority with Sen. McConnell at the helm,” Law said.
The group along with an issue advocacy group, One Nation, emerged in 2015 with McConnell’s encouragement to quell worries that Republicans did not have support from an outside group that would focus on protecting and expanding its Senate majority.
They countered Democratic efforts, launched in the wake of a landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the spending of unlimited amounts of money. Groups allied with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, raised nearly $67 million in the 2014 election, when Democrats lost control of the Senate.
“As leader, Sen. McConnell has to guide his caucus and frequently he has to lead his members into difficult legislative terrain,” Law said. “It’s important for these members to know someone will have his back when it counts.”
The PAC spent most of its money in just eight states, with most of money paying for negative ads, lambasting Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That included almost $14 million in North Carolina, where Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr held off a challenge from a well-funded Democrat.
“Mitch McConnell built the Republican majority, he maintained the Republican majority and all Republicans owe a deep sense of gratitude to him,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina Republican strategist and campaign consultant to both Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis. “Any future success anyone is going to have, Mitch McConnell is going to be a player in that success. That’s the result and reality of his leadership.”
The PAC is now spending millions in reliably red Alabama to back Sen. Luther Strange, who faces a crowded GOP field in the Aug. 15 Republican primary. McConnell and Trump are allies in the Senate race, with Trump tweeting Tuesday that Strange has his “complete and total” endorsement in the race to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom Trump named as Attorney General.
Strange was appointed to the Senate earlier this year by former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, but faces fierce opposition from conservatives Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. and former Chief Justice Roy Moore, who have been campaigning against McConnell, depicting him as the embodiment of the Washington “swamp” that Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail.
The super PAC’s involvement in Alabama “is more about Mitch McConnell proving to the 50 other Republican senators that ‘no matter where you are, I have your back,’ “ said Brent Buchanan, a Republican strategist based in Montgomery, Ala.
The dust-up with Trump began after McConnell earlier this week suggested that the neophyte president had “excessive expectations” for how quickly Congress could act on legislation. Trump responded with a flurry of tweets urging “Mitch” to “get back to work.” Trump told reporters on Thursday he was disappointed that McConnell couldn’t repeal Obamacare and suggested that he may need to step down if he can’t deliver a win for Trump.
A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said McConnell’s comments were a signal to fellow Republican senators that they could distance themselves from the president — and that Trump believed he needed to push back.
Still, the adviser acknowledged that despite Trump's pique, McConnell is not going anywhere because he's too valuable to the Republican caucus.
“He is probably the best political leader since Trent Lott,” said the adviser, who did not want to be identified in order to speak candidly. “He led Republicans back to the majority. He is an incredible field general for the Senate. He has personally raised millions of dollars for Republicans.”
Those donors to the Senate Leadership Fund in 2016 included some of the country’s wealthiest individuals. Las Vegas and Macau casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, contributed $10 million each. Other notable donors included Home Depot co-founder Marcus Bernard, Houston Texans CEO Robert McNair, Chicago hedge-fund manager Ken Griffin, energy entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens and real-estate investor Sam Zell.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.