Four months later, McConnell set aside precious floor time and scheduled votes on the bill even though it was not on the radar for much of Washington, paving the way for its passage — and for Gardner and Daines to cut campaign ads touting the achievement.
“Not only was it the right thing to do from a good government point of view, but sure — it ought to help Cory and Steve, they did a lot of work on it,” McConnell told CNN this week.
The episode illustrated McConnell’s intense focus at holding onto his perch atop the Senate and keeping the majority in GOP hands, navigating one of the most tumultuous elections of his long political career while finding a way to take advantage of having a Republican in the White House — even one who has a penchant for putting GOP senators in a jam time and again.
Asked if he thinks Trump is a net positive for Senate Republican candidates on the ticket, McConnell would only say: “We’ll find out. That’s something that we’ll only know the day after the election.”
And as he’s faced one of the toughest Senate maps in years, with 23 GOP seats in cycle compared to 12 for Democrats, the Kentucky Republican has tapped into his deep-pocketed donor network to pour millions to his well-funded super PAC and has sought to narrow Democrats’ online fundraising advantage by directing millions more to his vulnerable GOP colleagues. He reviews every ad that hits the airwaves in the key races on a daily basis, providing counsel and advice to his colleagues about the messaging for his party.
And with the power to set the schedule in the Senate, McConnell has taken steps to insulate his vulnerable members from the onslaught of Democratic attacks, culminating with a vote Thursday to take up a GOP economic recovery plan after the Republican leader has privately told his members in conference calls that such a vote is critical for Republican senators hoping to hang onto their seats in November.
In the Wednesday interview, McConnell said it’s “just a hugely challenging cycle to hold onto” the majority and said it’s a “50-50 situation,” arguing that races in Montana, Colorado, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Georgia are far too close to call.
“That’s why I describe it like a knife fight in an alley,” McConnell said of the battle for the Senate. “Everybody’s slugging it out.”
And that’s why his allies say McConnell can’t afford to be at odds with Trump, given the President’s popularity with the base and his habit at firing back at any perceived slight, creating politically damaging distractions and undercutting the GOP leader’s long-held view that the party’s best posture is to maintain unity.
But McConnell has found a way to use Trump’s help to his advantage: convincing him to help his preferred candidates who stand a better chance of winning in November.
Kobach’s rival in the primary, Rep. Roger Marshall, was the subject of attack ads waged by the conservative group Club for Growth, something that Republican leaders worried would pave the way for a Kobach primary win. So McConnell made a suggestion to Trump: Ask the Club for Growth to end that ad campaign.
Sitting in the Oval Office, Trump called up the group’s president, David McIntosh, put him on speakerphone in the Oval Office and delivered a blunt message: “Stop carving up” Marshall, Trump said, according to two sources with knowledge of the call. Trump told the group’s leader that McConnell was in the room listening.
Soon after, the Club for Growth stopped its massive ad campaign, and Marshall later emerged victorious in the primary, giving Republican leaders greater hope of retaining the seat in November and holding onto the Senate.
Recalling that episode on Wednesday, McConnell said that incident “was an example of him being cooperative,” referring to Trump.
“If you don’t nominate people who can appeal to the general election audience, you are going to lose,” McConnell said. “And so the President has been helpful in working with me and making sure we got the right people nominated.”