Conservative activists eagerly hope the November 2018 election delivers a strong rebuke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom they blame for stymieing President Donald Trump’s agenda.
They’re likely to be disappointed.
When a new Senate convenes in January 2019, the Kentucky Republican will almost certainly remain in charge of Senate Republicans.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who threatened a “season of war” against establishment Republicans, has championed primary challenges to sitting senators. He says he’ll support only candidates who pledge to vote against McConnell as Republican leader.
But only nine Republican seats will be on the ballot this year. That means that even if Bannon’s army and its allies successfully topple one or two incumbent senators — a daunting challenge — and the insurgents then win a general election, McConnell critics would still be outnumbered among Senate Republicans.
“They’d have to replace half the Republican conference (membership) if they’re going to threaten him,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes U.S. House and Senate races.
Leadership positions are determined by a secret vote of senators from the same party, and there’s no sentiment for replacing McConnell.
He was first elected Senate Republican Leader unanimously by his colleagues in 2006 and was unanimously elected majority leader when Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014. The vote is generally held the month after the election and only senators who will serve in the upcoming Congress are eligible to vote.
Currently, “he absolutely has the support of the overwhelming majority of the caucus,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Yet Bannon allies dismiss the significance of any such vote count. Instead, they cite the experience of former House Speaker John Boehner, who resigned his leadership position and left Congress in 2015 amid pressure from the conservative wing of his chamber.
“We don’t need a majority of Republicans in the Senate to depose Mitch McConnell,” said a Bannon ally who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “All we need to do is make him politically toxic, and whether his allies want to admit it or not, we’ve already succeeded.”
Missouri Attorney Gen. Josh Hawley, Republicans’ top recruit to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, has not committed to voting for McConnell as Republican leader if elected in 2018.
Activists have blamed McConnell for failing to deliver on a campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. They’re furious that he’s presided over a 2017 session that has produced no major legislative accomplishments, despite Republican control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
The Obamacare measure cleared the House, but efforts have languished in the Senate. The latest effort collapsed in September, with three Republican senators firmly opposed.
Republican senators say the repeal failed because the chamber doesn’t have enough Republicans, not that McConnell fell short.
“He has about 47, 48 strong people with him and maybe 3 or 4 outliers that he can’t depend on at times,” Shelby said. “That’s not his fault.”
Outside groups have the right to complain, said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., but they don’t vote in the Senate and can’t appreciate McConnell.
“Republican senators elect their own leader and will continue to do so,” Alexander said. “Mitch has done an exceptional job and he’s earned the strong support of our caucus.”
McConnell, like most veteran congressional leaders, maintains his grip on his job partly through relationships developed over the years. Senators tend to remember and are grateful for the leader providing plum committee assignments, the ability to offer favorite amendments and schedule long weekends so they can go home.
They’ve also been the beneficiaries of a powerful super PAC that has plowed millions into Republican Senate campaigns. The Senate Leadership Fund, one of two outside groups run by McConnell loyalists, spent nearly $86 million in the 2016 campaign, making it the third largest outside spender. It trailed only the super PACS that backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential primary contender Jeb Bush.
Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, who railed against McConnell and the Washington “swamp” during his primary race, attended the Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunch last week and said he had a “nice” chat with McConnell.
Moore, who during the campaign told supporters that he’d be the “biggest threat” to the Washington establishment if elected, would not say if he’d vote against McConnell if he wins the general election in December.
“I’m not going to give an opinion on that right now,” Moore told reporters as he left the lunch.
McConnell’s camp says Bannon’s effort began to falter soon after McConnell appeared last month at the White House with Trump, who had critiqued McConnell on Twitter but insisted in the Rose Garden appearance that the two were good friends with a shared agenda.
It helps when McConnell has been able to deliver items Trump wants, including pushing through more of the president’s judicial picks, said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant who has worked for McConnell.
It could really help the leader if he can get the Senate to pass a tax code overhaul before the 2018 election. McConnell led an effort to require only 51 votes to cut off debate on the tax bill, instead of the traditional 60. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
“The whole Bannon bluster is deflating by the day,” Jennings said. “And Mitch McConnell is able to take the air out of the grand pronouncements by scoring wins for the president.”