Trump-McCon­nell al­liance pays po­lit­i­cal div­i­dends for Repub­li­cans

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Nation - BY SEUNG MIN KIM

In the past two years, Mitch McCon­nell was dealt a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat on health care and lost a Se­nate seat in ruby-red Alabama — all while nav­i­gat­ing a tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, a man po­lar op­po­site in tem­per­a­ment from the steely ma­jor­ity leader.

Yet McCon­nell has worked with Trump to shep­herd two con­ser­va­tives onto the Supreme Court, en­sure con­fir­ma­tion of 82 other judges and steer the first tax-code over­haul in three decades, prob­a­bly po­si­tion­ing Se­nate Repub­li­cans to re­tain their del­i­cate ma­jor­ity in Tues­day’s elec­tion de­spite Trump’s un­pop­u­lar­ity and a na­tional mood that would oth­er­wise sweep them out of power.

McCon­nell has hitched his Se­nate for­tunes to Trump, know­ing the pres­i­dent’s strong sup­port with the base will be key to the party re­tain­ing its ma­jor­ity.

In a re­cent White House meet­ing, McCon­nell told Trump he was the only fig­ure who could sus­tain a surge of GOP mo­men­tum from the po­lar­iz­ing con­fir­ma­tion fight over Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh — one of sev­eral times Trump has heeded strate­gic coun­sel from the ma­jor­ity leader, much to the po­lit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive ben­e­fit of both men.

Af­ter the ug­li­ness be­tween Trump and McCon­nell last year over the col­lapse of the health-care law re­peal, McCon­nell has taken the lead on judges and leg­is­la­tion, and cre- ated an al­liance with the pres­i­dent who can be as er­ratic as McCon­nell is steady.

“You know, he goes down as the great­est leader, in my opin­ion, in his­tory,” Trump said of McCon­nell, now in his sixth term, at a rally in Ken­tucky last month. “What we’ve done is in­cred­i­ble to­gether. But he’s bet­ter when I’m pres­i­dent than he ever was when any­one else was pres­i­dent.”

Trump and McCon­nell fre­quently talk on the phone, and the calls are of­ten im­promptu. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two has im­proved dra­mat­i­cally since the health-care vote in July 2017 prompted an an­gry “Mitch, get back to work” tweet from

Trump and the GOP es­tab­lish­ment lost an oth­er­wise winnable Se­nate seat in Alabama by nom­i­nat­ing Roy Moore, who was ac­cused by more than half a dozen women of pur­su­ing them when they were teenagers.

“They’re learn­ing from each other,” Sen. La­mar Alexan­der, R-Tenn., a McCon­nell ally, said in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year about the leader and the pres­i­dent. “One could not imag­ine two more dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal styles. One is the daily tweet­storm and the other be­lieves si­lence is a virtue. One is episodic, and the other is re­dun­dancy.”

In the Se­nate bat­tle­grounds, Repub­li­can vot­ers are still en­er­gized, GOP of­fi­cials say, by the con­tentious fight over Ka­vanaugh, which McCon­nell has cred­ited for gal­va­niz­ing the party’s base that up to that point had been lack­ing.

Rather than bail­ing on Ka­vanaugh amid al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault, McCon­nell stood by the nom­i­nee and cap­i­tal­ized on the furor as Democrats tried to de­feat Trump’s choice. Ka­vanaugh de­nied the al­le­ga­tions, and the Se­nate nar­rowly con­firmed him.

“The Ka­vanaugh nom­i­na­tion process up­set so many con­ser­va­tives,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said. “They saw, kind of, the mob rule, and they be­lieve in a pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence, and they saw that be­ing vi­o­lated in this process and it en­er­gized a lot of con­ser­va­tives.”

This elec­tion cy­cle, McCon­nell has been blessed with an ex­tremely fa­vor­able map where the ma­jor Se­nate bat­tles are be­ing fought mostly on con­ser­va­tive ter­rain. Heed­ing McCon­nell’s ad­vice, Trump is in the mid­dle of a six-day, 11-rally blitz fo­cused pri­mar­ily on top-tier Se­nate races.

But McCon­nell’s al­lies say his prospects of keep- ing the ma­jor­ity is more than luck of the map, hav­ing knocked out GOP pri­mary con­tenders who would be un­electable in a gen­eral elec­tion and engi­neered leg­isla­tive wins on de­fense spend­ing and opi­oids.

“The last few cy­cles in par­tic­u­lar, he’s played an out­size role in mak­ing sure Repub­li­cans have a set of cards on Elec­tion Day that can win, and that’s ba­si­cally all you can do,” said Josh Holmes, a for­mer McCon­nell chief of staff and po­lit­i­cal ad­viser.

McCon­nell has long eyed nine states as the main Se­nate bat­tle­ground: Ne­vada, where Sen. Dean Heller is the sole Repub­li­can run­ning in a state that Hil­lary Clin­ton won in 2016; Mon­tana; Ari­zona; Ten­nessee; North Dakota; Mis­souri; In­di­ana; West Vir­ginia and Florida.

With one ma­jor ex­cep­tion in Alabama, McCon­nell and other strate­gists work­ing to elect Repub­li­cans have staved off po- ten­tial elec­toral dis­as­ters in the GOP pri­maries, al­though some nom­i­nees emerged po­lit­i­cally bruised.

In Ari­zona, McCon­nell’s fa­vored can­di­date, Rep. Martha McSally, won the GOP nom­i­na­tion over two much more di­vi­sive can­di­dates. Trump pub­licly nudged Repub­li­can Danny Tarka­nian out of his chal­lenge to Heller, who was able to run un­op­posed af­ter Tarka­nian de­cided to try for a House seat in­stead.

And in West Vir­ginia, Trump and McCon­nell teamed up to el­bow ex-coal baron Don Blanken­ship, who had spent a year in prison for vi­o­lat­ing fed­eral safety stan­dards at a mine, out of win­ning a three-way GOP pri­mary.

Just be­fore the May 8 pri­mary there, Trump tweeted to his mil­lions of fol­low­ers that Blanken­ship could not win the gen­eral elec­tion and to vote in­stead for Evan Jenk­ins or Pa­trick Mor­risey, the party’s even­tual nom­i­nee — a move cooked up by Trump and McCon­nell in a pri­vate phone con­ver­sa­tion the day be­fore. (None­the­less, Demo­cratic Sen. Joe Manchin III is fa­vored to win re-elec­tion.)

Trump and McCon­nell also fended off po­ten­tial pri­mary chal­lenges to GOP Sens. Deb Fis­cher of Ne­braska, John Bar­rasso of Wy­oming and Roger Wicker of Mis­sis­sippi — solidly con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers who none­the­less faced a threat from the right last year un­der an ap­proach ad­vo­cated by Trump’s for­mer chief strate­gist, Stephen Ban­non. In­stead of tak­ing the Ban­non route, Trump swiftly en­dorsed the sit­ting sen­a­tors.

“What was last year a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pres­i­dent and the leader,” said Steven Law, an­other for­mer McCon­nell chief of staff who leads the su­per PAC Se­nate Lead­er­ship Fund, “has now be­come one of to­tal co­op­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially as it per­tains to the ex­e­cu­tion of the po­lit­i­cal plan.”

McCon­nell’s biggest chal­lenge on Tues­day is a col­lec­tion of well-fi­nanced Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­dates who have fought and won tough races in their con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing states.

He is also con­tend­ing with an en­thu­si­as­tic Demo­cratic base revved up over health care as Repub­li­cans strug­gle to an­swer for their re­peated at­tempts to re­peal the 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act and its core pro­tec­tion for Amer­i­cans with pre­ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions.

“By work­ing to gut pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions cov­er­age, driv­ing up the deficit with a cor­po­rate tax hand­out, and then threat­en­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care, Mitch McCon­nell made sure Democrats had plenty to run on and helped us put Repub­li­cans on de­fense,” said Lau­ren Pas­salac­qua, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Demo­cratic Se­na­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

Still, Repub­li­cans are fa­vored to keep the Se­nate ma­jor­ity and per­haps boost their 51-to-49 ad­van­tage. Even if the GOP loses the House, keep­ing the Se­nate ma­jor­ity would al­low McCon­nell and Trump to not only be a fire­wall against House Democrats but to fin­ish McCon­nell’s top pri­or­ity.

“If we can hold the Se­nate,” McCon­nell said at a Her­itage Foun­da­tion speech last month, “I as­sure you we will com­plete the job of trans­form­ing the fed­eral ju­di­ciary.”

YURI GRIPAS Bloomberg

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., has worked with Pres­i­dent Trump to shep­herd two con­ser­va­tives onto the Supreme Court and steer the first tax-code over­haul in three decades, po­si­tion­ing Se­nate Repub­li­cans to re­tain their ma­jor­ity in Tues­day’s elec­tions.

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