Mc­Connell uses tac­ti­cal in­flu­ence in GOP races

Rebels want Se­nate leader to butt out

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

Mitch Mc­Connell has been the Se­nate Re­pub­li­can leader for more than a decade, but never has his in­flu­ence been more felt than this elec­tion year as he tries to de­fend his party’s slim ma­jor­ity against Democrats rid­ing an anti-Trump wave.

Whether he is shap­ing the agenda for in­cum­bents or putting his fin­ger on the scales to help pick nom­i­nees for open seats, Mr. Mc­Connell — as well as Pres­i­dent Trump — is the big­gest fac­tor in con­trol of the Se­nate.

De­fend­ers say Mr. Mc­Connell has han­dled both roles mas­ter­fully. Repub­li­cans can run on a tax cut, a new Supreme Court jus­tice and a host of erased Obama-era reg­u­la­tions. The ma­jor­ity leader also is work­ing to make sure weak can­di­dates don’t win the party’s nom­i­na­tion in key states.

But some in­sur­gent Repub­li­cans whom Mr. Mc­Connell is work­ing to de­feat say he will cost the party seats it oth­er­wise would

win in Novem­ber. They also ac­cuse him of un­der­cut­ting Mr. Trump and the con­ser­va­tive move­ment by back­ing can­di­dates who are less com­mit­ted to the pres­i­dent’s agenda.

“If Mitch were bal­anc­ing the bud­get and pass­ing real tax cuts for the mid­dle class and had an al­ter­na­tive to Oba­macare that gave peo­ple qual­ity health in­sur­ance at a lower cost, then in­ter­fere all you want,” said Rick Tyler, a se­nior ad­viser to Chris McDaniel, an in­sur­gent Re­pub­li­can in Mis­sis­sippi who is run­ning for a Se­nate seat.

Oth­er­wise, Mr. Tyler said, he should butt out.

Mr. Mc­Connell, now in his sixth term from Ken­tucky, has earned the rep­u­ta­tion as a mas­ter­ful tac­ti­cian who can count votes and strike deals. He served as mi­nor­ity leader from 2007 to 2014 and then as­cended to ma­jor­ity leader when Repub­li­cans took con­trol of the Se­nate in early 2015.

As ma­jor­ity leader, he has strug­gled to pass an Oba­macare re­peal or an im­mi­gra­tion bill, has been un­able to ad­vance ma­jor gun rights or pro-life leg­is­la­tion, and has over­seen a mas­sive jump in debt and spend­ing.

But he de­liv­ered a $1.5 tril­lion tax cut pack­age and an end to Oba­macare’s in­di­vid­ual man­date. In per­haps his big­gest coup, he held off ac­tion on Pres­i­dent Obama’s nom­i­nee to the Supreme Court so the new pres­i­dent could fill the va­cancy. That turned out to be Mr. Trump, who picked con­ser­va­tive star Jus­tice Neil M. Gor­such.

“His style may trans­late to in­sider or re­alpoli­tik, which drives his op­po­nents crazy, but over­all his re­sults on Gor­such and tax re­form are historic,” said Kevin Sheri­dan, a Re­pub­li­can Party strate­gist. “Will those ac­com­plish­ments plus judges, dereg­u­la­tion and mil­i­tary fund­ing be enough in 2018? Prob­a­bly.”

Mr. Mc­Connell’s of­fice de­clined re­quests to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, but the se­na­tor told re­porters last week that the coun­try has made “dra­matic progress” un­der Re­pub­li­can gover­nance.

“Every­body’s ex­cited about the con­di­tion of the econ­omy and the way the coun­try seems to be in an upbeat mood head­ing into the fall elec­tion,” he said.

A num­ber of Repub­li­cans are still antsy, though. They sent an of­fi­cial re­quest to Mr. Mc­Connell this week ask­ing him to can­cel their usual month­long sum­mer re­cess and keep the Se­nate in ses­sion to make head­way on Mr. Trump’s nom­i­na­tions and on the bud­get, hop­ing to head off a shut­down show­down just be­fore elec­tions.

Jeff Pye, vice pres­i­dent of leg­isla­tive af­fairs at Free­dom Works, said Mr. Mc­Connell should heed the re­quest. He pointed to bills that have passed the House but have yet to see ac­tion in the Se­nate be­cause of a slug­gish floor sched­ule.

“I be­lieve that the con­trol of the House, what hap­pens in Novem­ber, lies at the feet of one per­son: Mitch Mc­Connell, be­cause of the in­abil­ity to do stuff on the Se­nate side and ex­cite the grass roots,” Mr. Pye said.

“There is just not a whole lot to show, and that is ac­tu­ally killing Re­pub­li­can prospects,” said Adam Bran­don, pres­i­dent of Free­dom Works.

Mr. Mc­Connell’s will­ing­ness to step into Re­pub­li­can Party pri­maries is also rais­ing eye­brows for a party that has long de­bated how much of a role Wash­ing­ton should play in pick­ing can­di­dates in the states. Af­ter a se­ries of dis­as­trous in­ter­ven­tions in pri­maries dur­ing the tea party wave in 2010, Re­pub­li­can lead­ers said they would back off — only to have un­palat­able nom­i­nees cost the party winnable seats.

Add to that a lin­ger­ing sense of ten­sion be­tween Mr. Trump’s ver­sion of the Re­pub­li­can Party and Mr. Mc­Connell’s more es­tab­lish­ment-minded ver­sion, and the chances for nasty pri­maries are ob­vi­ous.

In Ari­zona, all three ma­jor Repub­li­cans seek­ing the state’s open Se­nate seat claim to be the best Trump picks — but Mr. Mc­Connell is back­ing Rep. Martha McSally over for­mer state law­maker Kelli Ward and for­mer Mari­copa County Sher­iff Joe Ar­paio.

“They want to stick their nose into Ari­zona and try and pick our se­na­tor,” Mrs. Ward said at a re­cent event.

Mr. Mc­Connell also is fac­ing back­lash in Mis­sis­sippi. He is sup­port­ing Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, who was re­cently ap­pointed to for­mer Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat, over Mr. McDaniel.

Mr. Tyler, the ad­viser to Mr. McDaniel, said Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans don’t appear to have learned their les­son from the spe­cial elec­tion last year in deep-red Alabama, where the Re­pub­li­can Se­nate can­di­date suf­fered an em­bar­rass­ing loss to Demo­crat Doug Jones.

“It wasn’t a blue wave; it was the Mitch Mc­Connell tor­nado that gave that seat to Doug Jones,” Mr. Tyler said.

In that case, Re­pub­li­can vot­ers re­jected Mr. Mc­Connell’s pre­ferred nom­i­nee and in­stead put mav­er­ick for­mer state Supreme Court Jus­tice Roy Moore against Mr. Jones. Faced with ac­cu­sa­tions of sexual re­la­tions with teenage girls, Mr. Moore went down to de­feat.

Mr. Mc­Connell’s team makes no apolo­gies for his ac­tive role.

“When we see a choice be­tween some­one who would cer­tainly lose the race and some­body who would cer­tainly win the race, we will some­times get in­volved,” Steven Law, pres­i­dent of the Se­nate Lead­er­ship Fund, re­cently said on MSNBC.

Mr. Mc­Connell is fo­cused on Re­pub­li­can-held seats in Ari­zona, Ne­vada and Ten­nessee and Demo­crat-con­trolled seats in Florida, In­di­ana, Mis­souri, Mon­tana, North Dakota and West Vir­ginia.

In Ne­vada, the Se­nate Lead­er­ship Fund helped clear the way for Sen. Dean Heller by spend­ing money against pri­mary chal­lenger Danny Tarka­nian, who later heeded the ad­vice of Mr. Trump by pulling the plug on his chal­lenge and in­stead set his sights on the House.

Mr. Heller is one of the sen­a­tors who signed on to the re­quest to keep the Se­nate in ses­sion through the sum­mer. Keith Schip­per, a Heller campaign spokesman, said his boss would like to get more ac­com­plished be­fore the elec­tions but is con­fi­dent he has compiled a “great record” un­der Mr. Mc­Connell.

“I think any­body would al­ways say they can wish they can have more,” Mr. Schip­per said.

Mr. Mc­Connell scored an­other win last week when he and Mr. Trump helped steer the Re­pub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in West Vir­ginia to­ward state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Patrick Mor­risey and away from Don Blanken­ship.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

SHREWD: Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell is the big­gest fac­tor in keep­ing Re­pub­li­can con­trol of the Se­nate.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell makes no apolo­gies for tak­ing an ac­tive role in races for Re­pub­li­can-held seats in Ari­zona, Ne­vada and Ten­nessee and Democratheld seats in Florida, In­di­ana, Mis­souri, Mon­tana, North Dakota and West Vir­ginia.

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