Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reputation for guiding the GOP out of hairy political situations is being put to the test once again as he tries to steer through the choppiest political waters of his long career and save the party’s slim majority in the upper chamber.
The Kentucky Republican is trying to overcome opposition — both from the left, which wants even more spending, and the right, which wants less spending — to grind out a new coronavirus stimulus package. It could help the GOP defend their control of the Senate, which has become a potential last stand for Republicans with President Trump’s reelection in doubt and hopes dashed for flipping the House.
“This is what leadership is about — finding a way to listen to your members while negotiating a deal that will pass muster with the base and earn the president’s signature,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist.
“The hardest part of McConnell’s job is telling his colleagues that they can’t get the project that they most wanted but will have to support a project of one of their colleagues who is in [an election] cycle,” he said. “It’s not an easy job and it takes years of experience to do it well.”
The 2020 cycle is arguably the most challenging for Mr. McConnell since he became the Republican leader more than a decade ago.
The 78-year-old is defending GOP’s 53-47 seat edge in the Senate, which under his stewardship has appointed a slew of conservative judges to federal courts and cleared the way for the confirmation of Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court picks.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health problems could lead to another opening on the high court, further raising the stakes in contests to control of the upper chamber.
Back home, Mr. McConnell is navigating his own bid for a seventh term. His Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, raised $17 million last quarter — nearly $5 million more than the incumbent, underscoring the big target on his back.
The McConnell campaigned released a new television ad Tuesday casting Ms. McGrath as a partisan obstructionist cut from the same cloth as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while touting the role he played in forging bipartisan consensus around a coronavirus relief bill that provided a lifeline to small businesses amid the economic turmoil.
As it stands, Mr. McConnell is favored to defend his seat, according to the latest rankings from the Cook Political Report, but the GOP’s prospects have dimmed elsewhere.
GOP Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona is considered the underdog in her race against Democrat Mark Kelly, and a half-dozen Republicans in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina are locked in “toss-up” races.
Alabama is a bright spot for the GOP as Democratic Sen. Doug Jones is considered the underdog in his re-election race against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
Mr. McConnell and the GOP were better positioned earlier in the year, but now senators such as Joni Ernst in Iowa and David Perdue in Georgia are in real political peril.
“I think people are concerned,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based GOP strategist, noting how dramatically the political landscape has changed since January.
“At the beginning of the year we had a roaring economy and no pandemic and we probably didn’t have the heightened sense of racial unrest” that we do now, he said. “You could probably make the case that Trump was going to win if the economy stayed the way it was.”
Mr. Trump now trails presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden in most national and battleground-state polls.
Craig Robinson, an Iowa-based GOP strategist, said whether it likes it or not, the Senate GOP’s fate is tied to Mr. Trump.
He said that could be problematic because Mr. Trump could be a scapegoat for some voters frustrated and scared by the coronavirus even though the Republican has not made a “colossal mistake.”
“It was a terrible hand we were dealt as a country,” Mr. Robinson said. “I don’t lay the blame completely at the feet at the president, because the last I checked there is no president who can snap their fingers and wipe away the virus.”
“You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said.
Still, he said, Mr. McConnell and GOP incumbents would be smart to stay in the foxhole with Mr. Trump.
“You are already tied to this guy,” Mr. Robinson said. “So if you are Cory Gardner [in Colorado] or Joni Ernst, get comfy because this is the race you are going to run,” he said.
“Trying to triangulate this thing into victory I think is a fool’s errand,” Mr. Robinson concluded.
The latest campaign filings show Democrats have outraised GOP incumbents in most competitive Senate races over the last three months. Those numbers have raised the hopes of Democrats and fueled speculation in GOP circles that donors will start investing more in holding the Senate.
“My expectation is that coming down the stretch, GOP major donors will continue to prioritize the presidential and Senate campaigns,” said Phil Cox, a GOP strategist. “If there’s an impact, it’s going to be felt down-ticket with congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races.”
“With so much economic uncertainty, some of the corporate and major donor money that would traditionally go to those races could be put on hold,” Mr. Cox said. “Major donors understand that if Trump were to lose, the Senate is the last line of defense in keeping the most extreme elements of the Democrats’ agenda from becoming law.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm for Senate Republicans, downplayed Democrats’ strong fundraising quarter.
“Democrats will need to spend every penny to defend records that are disqualifying in the eyes of mainstream voters who will decide the outcome in key Senate races,” Mr. Hunt said. “Personal scandals and a party rallying around a socialist agenda are problems money can’t solve.”
Matt Corridoni, a spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, which is dedicated to electing Democrats, said they have momentum and are forcing Republicans to play defense in purple and red states.
“Senate Republicans have enabled the worst of President Trump’s policies and have failed the leadership test on critical issues ranging from health care to combating the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Across the board, Republicans have lost the trust of voters and will pay the price in November for failing to be the independent voices they claim to be.”
That has served as the backdrop to the current negotiations on Capitol Hill, where Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota told reporters this week that Mr. McConnell has been dealt a tough hand.
Speaking Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Mr. McConnell sought to shift the spotlight onto the obstruction of Democrats, accusing his counterparts of trotting out “old partisan tropes” aimed at muddying the GOP’s coronavirus economic aid package.
“Do the speaker of the House and the Democratic leader believe that struggling Americans deserve an outcome, or do they want to stay on the sidelines and recite talking points?” Mr. McConnell said, touting the GOP’s proposal, which calls for another round of stimulus checks and $200 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits — less than the extra $600 per week that Democrats want.
“Our Democratic colleagues want to pretend it is controversial somehow that taxpayers should not pay people more not to work than people who do go back to work,” he said. “The American people don’t call that a controversy, they call that common sense.”
Mr. McConnell, meanwhile, is facing resistance on his right flank over the price tag, leaving him searching for a path forward that will help vulnerable Republicans without alienating conservatives.
The final proposal will help determine the contours of the election over the next 97 days.
“Our nation stands at a challenging crossroads, we have one foot in this pandemic and one foot in the recovery. We can’t go back to April, and until we have a vaccine, we can’t go back to normal either,” Mr. McConnell said.
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