WASHINGTON — When Mitch McConnell was asked last week about former President Donald Trump’s latest call to replace him as Republican leader, the Kentuckian only offered a two-word response shielded behind a wily smirk: “Good try.”
While some interpreted that as a direct reply to Trump, McConnell’s communications director indicated it was more likely his way of dodging the reporter’s question altogether.
Directly responding to Trump would be a dramatic break from how McConnell has handled a full year of his consistent attacks. The Senate minority leader has largely been content with ignoring them, allowing the Trump-McConnell feud to be a mostly one-way exchange.
As McConnell aides profess repeatedly, one of Team Mitch’s rules for engagement is to avoid taking the bait, especially when it comes to Trump. If McConnell were to fire back at Trump, it would guarantee another round of stories about their broken relationship and only entice Trump to further escalate the fight.
This, of course, would place his colleagues in an uncomfortable position and suck away oxygen from the contrast McConnell wants, which is with Democrats. The bait being rejected is what McConnell aides view as a favorite story of Washington reporters: Republican-on-Republican violence, and any smackdown involving Trump.
McConnell again slid by the topic this week when conservative radio host Guy Benson took his shot at the question du jour.
“Senate Republicans decide who their leader is,” McConnell said without ever uttering Trump’s name. “And if you wrap up the year, we’ve had a marvelous year … We’re headed toward a very significant midterm election next year and we should in all likelihood flip both the House and the Senate to the Republican Party.”
Notably, a Morning Consult survey of the year’s most popular news events found that Trump’s call for McConnell’s ouster was the least resonant of 131 items presented to voters. Forty-five percent of the electorate told the pollster they had heard nothing about it at all, a data point that arguably validates the McConnell strategy.
McConnell has kept his 50-member caucus unified behind him due to the respect he commands for how he has handled a Democratic-controlled Washington.
But in order to accomplish this, he’s had to employ an unfamiliar tactic in political combat with the dominant figure in Republican — and arguably American — politics: If you can’t beat him, ignore him.
Trump’s latest broadside against McConnell came during an interview on Fox News with Maria Bartiromo in which he dubbed McConnell a “disaster.”
“The Republicans have to get a new leader,” Trump implored.
This wasn’t new. It was only the most recent hit, capping the calendar year of what’s been a steady drumbeat since McConnell blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
Last spring, Trump described the Senate GOP leader as “a dumb son of a bitch … a stone cold loser” and “helpless to fight” against Democrats.
Before that but following his second impeachment, Trump issued a statement lambasting McConnell for a “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill and personality.”
“If Republican senators are going to stay with him,” Trump vowed, “they will not win again.”
That declaration will be tested next November, when Republicans will likely be well-positioned to gain the one seat necessary to recapture the majority.
The GOP is riding with McConnell, with no evidence of a credible challenger to his return to majority leader, a point even his toughest critics concede.
“In private conversations, I’ve heard senators of all manner complain about him, but they don’t challenge him,” said Brent Bozell, the founder and president of the conservative Media Research Center. “But Mitch McConnell plays his cards very well … You know your career will be destroyed if you do it and you fail. If you aspire to any kind of leadership committee, you can forget it. If there is a primary challenge to you, he has the capacity to fund it. If you dare challenge it, you’re going to look behind you for the troops and you’re not going to find it.”
Conservative critics of McConnell remain abundant — from Fox’s Tucker Carlson to Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, currently pursuing a Senate seat to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby.
But McConnell’s survival has also been bolstered by the lack of an opponent attempting to mobilize against him.
“There are plenty of conservatives that I believe would make very good GOP leaders in the Senate. In no particular order, Ted Cruz would be good, Rand Paul would be good, Mike Lee would be good, Ron Johnson would be good, Josh Hawley,” said Brooks, rattling off names of some of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus.
But none of them have shown any signs or interest of taking a shot at McConnell and beyond bombastic rhetoric Trump has never orchestrated a coordinated campaign to push one of them into trying.
And there’s some indication that McConnell and Trump could be more aligned on 2022 Senate candidates than originally thought.
One example is McConnell’s embrace of former NFL star Herschel Walker in Georgia, which will host one of the marquee match-ups that will decide Senate control.
“Mitch McConnell, at the end of the day wants to have at least one more Republican senator than Democratic senator and whatever’s necessary to get that job done within the confines of the law and the rules, he’s probably going to do,” said GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. “I’ve never met anybody as good at it as he is.”
And as the midterms draw closer next year, the expectation is McConnell will do more to solidify Republican unity, which means even less of a chance he acknowledges Trump’s barbs.
Still, some observers see the end of the road coming for McConnell, especially if Trump seeks the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
Jim Kessler of the centrist-Democratic think thank The Third Way predicted that Trump would inevitably make McConnell’s removal a central part of his 2024 comeback, as an intraparty foil has always served him well to burnish his outsider credentials.
“Last time it was Jeb Bush and the Bush family. This time it will be McConnell. Candidates for president will be asked whether they agree with Trump that McConnell must go. They’ll hem and haw and look weak and like quivering politicians. So will sitting and running GOP senators. They will quake,” Kessler predicted. “McConnell excoriated Trump after Jan. 6 and in his acquittal speech on impeachment. He wounded the bear and I’m not sure he’s got any ammo left.”