McConnell tries to shelter GOP senators from Trump upheaval

Thursday, June 30, 2016
Sen. Mitch McConnell

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is wrestling with an unenviable, arguably impossible task this election year: protecting Senate Republicans from the political upheaval caused by Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.

If he fails, it won't be for lack of preparation, hard work and cold-blooded political calculation.

In many ways Trump's polar opposite, the close-mouthed, deliberate, uncharismatic McConnell maneuvered into his dream job as majority leader last year and has been working every angle to ensure he hangs on to it even if a backlash against Trump provokes a Democratic tidal wave.

If they keep the presidency, Democrats need to pick up four Senate seats to take back the majority.

For McConnell, 74, avoiding that outcome means running a Senate schedule designed to assist a handful of vulnerable GOP incumbents in states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio. He's allowing them to take votes and stack accomplishments on issues they can brag about to voters back home, such as opioid addiction.

"It's certainly helped me," said one of these lawmakers, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

It means having the foresight to push for an independent super PAC run by allies focused solely on Senate Republicans, built on a model that helped McConnell to a resounding re-election win in Kentucky two years ago. The Senate Leadership Fund, run by his former chief of staff Steven Law, announced this week it was reserving nearly $40 million in air time for the fall in five states.

And it means a delicate dance with Trump, whom he was quick to endorse in May, declaring Trump had "won the old-fashioned way -- he got more votes than anybody else."

The approach was markedly different from that of House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose hesitation before backing Trump provoked weeks of headlines on GOP infighting and private grumbling from some Republicans who thought Ryan should have acted more like McConnell.

Since then, McConnell has picked his moments on Trump. For two weeks running at his weekly Senate press conferences, he refused to engage on questions about the "the presidential candidate," as he referred to Trump. This week, nobody asked.

But in a series of interviews to promote his new memoir, "The Long Game," McConnell mostly answered directly and offered frank criticisms, declaring Trump can't win without improving his measly fundraising numbers, needs to stop criticizing people, begin reading off a script and behave like a "serious candidate."

The two men have spoken privately on occasion, and McConnell noted Trump has begun to become more scripted. Allies said his handling of Trump is typical of the taciturn McConnell, who is preternaturally disciplined and focused on what he can control, tuning out what he cannot.

"I think he's been a model for how you handle the Trump phenomenon in a way that generates the least amount of daily news," Law said. "Others, either by equivocating or by alternatively feeling like they needed to respond to every news cycle, have generated more headaches for themselves than necessary."

McConnell personally was involved in getting former GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio to agree to run for re-election to his Senate seat in Florida, urging fellow senators to lean on Rubio, who had pledged to retire.

Rubio changed his mind, a decision Republicans believe will all but ensure they hang onto his Florida seat.

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