Mitch McConnell is heading to re-election next year without a primary threat looming on his right — a marked contrast from his last election, when he faced an aggressive, if ultimately unsuccessful challenge.
The lack of a potential rival speaks to McConnell’s success at working with President Donald Trump as well as the result of the 2014 primary challenge. McConnell defeated challenger Matt Bevin five years ago by more than 20 percentage points.
“McConnell made it so nasty when Matt ran against him and he spent so much money, I think it intimidated people who might want to run,” said Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, which in 2013 had championed efforts to pick a challenger.
By March of 2013, conservative groups at war with the establishment wing of the party were abuzz over a challenge to McConnell.
Bevin, who would lose to McConnell, but later win the governorship, won the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and FreedomWorks. They would spend more than $1 million to oppose McConnell, criticizing him for not slashing deficits and not doing more to dismantle Obamacare.
This time around, though, none of the groups appear interested in backing a challenger.
“We’re not quite ready to talk politics yet,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWork’s vice president of legislative affairs.
It “would help if McConnell continued to prioritize confirming judges and other nominees, as well as making Democrats defend their radical socialist agenda,” Pye said.
McConnell has complied, earning conservative plaudits by making the confirmation of Trump judges a priority. He took a dramatic step Tuesday toward getting more judges confirmed more quickly as the Senate moved closer to changing the rules of debate.
Currently, if the Senate agrees to limit debate on the nomination of a federal district court judge and certain executive branch appointments, it can debate for up to 30 hours. McConnell wants to cut that to two hours, opening the way for far easier confirmation.
The change in rules could come soon, as the Senate moves towards considering Trump’s nominations of Jeffrey Kessler as an assistant secretary of commerce and Roy Kalman Altman as a district court judge in south Florida.
McConnell has also earned conservative applause by forcing Democrats to take a vote on the Green New Deal, a sweeping resolution aimed at tackling climate change. Conservatives regard the proposal as a radical blueprint for government intrusion into people’s lives as well as a call for more spending.
“At this point most Republicans see Trump and McConnell as sort of an indispensable team standing between a conservative agenda and something that’s totally unrecognizable to them,” said Josh Holmes, a top McConnell political adviser and former chief of staff. “On a whole range of issues, he’s delivered.”
Some conservatives remain wary of McConnell — but he’s managed to remain in Trump’s good graces even as he defies the president.
When Trump last week prodded Republicans to take up a health care overhaul, McConnell resisted. And the senator told reporters Tuesday that he told Trump on Monday that the current Senate would not take up health care, explaining that replacing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act would not be possible with Democrats in charge of the House.
“He did say, as he later tweeted, he accepted that,” McConnell said. “We don’t have a misunderstanding about that.”
McConnell’s role in Republicans’ inability to repeal Obamacare has been a vulnerable spot with the right.
The Senate Conservatives Fund in 2013 ran an ad lambasting McConnell for his role in the negotiations that ended that year’s federal government shutdown. “Conservatives asked Mitch McConnell to lead the fight against Obamacare. He didn’t listen,” the ad said. “Instead, McConnell helped Barack Obama and Harry Reid fund Obamacare.”
Former Kentucky state Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, who lost his re-election bid to a primary challenger in 2018 and threatened to leave the GOP, said Tuesday he is “strongly, strongly considering” a challenge to McConnell, accusing him of moving to the right because Trump is so popular in the state.
“He moves like a windmill, he’ll move wherever the winds are going,” Morgan said of McConnell.
Matt Jones, a Kentucky radio show host who has considered running against McConnell as a Democrat, noted Trump’s effusive embrace of McConnell at a rally for Rep. Andy Barr in October 2018 likely kept away most Republican challengers to McConnell
At the rally, Trump lavished praise on McConnell for successfully seeing that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
“There’s nobody tougher. There’s nobody smarter,” Trump said of McConnell. “He refused to cave to the radical Democrats’ shameful campaign of personal and political destruction.
“He stared down the angry left-wing mob,” the president said. “He never blinked and he never looked back and he got us a man who will be one of our great, great Supreme Court justices.”