In his 2014 re-election, Mitch McConnell wasn’t running on his personality, nor was he trying to make the case he was the most homespun Kentucky senator there ever was. On the campaign trail, everything McConnell said and did came down to one essential truth: a vote for Mitch McConnell was a vote for a Republican Senate majority.
Now, however a volatile and unpredictable presidential cycle could throw that majority into jeopardy and all of the building blocks McConnell’s been laying through his three-decade career could fall apart if a bombastic or unpredictable GOP presidential candidate — Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? — wins the nomination and threatens his carefully-crafted majority.
“McConnell could orchestrate the perfect Senate race, but if the Republican presidential candidacy is a bust all of those candidacies could be washed away,” said Kyle Kondik, an expert on congressional elections with the University of Virginia. “It would be interesting that here you have a man of the party establishment who played by the rules and at the time of what could be his ultimate triumph, the party establishment is thrown aside and all his work could be undone.”
McConnell is a tactician of the Senate, a man known for his covert back-door negotiating not an infectious personality. Senators say McConnell has risen through the ranks because he is measured, not reactionary. He doesn’t entertain the impossible, but instead uses his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to his advantage. McConnell pays attention to detail and he embodies experience at a time when the crop of popular presidential nominees balk at it.
Republican leaders are growing increasingly worried about the potential that Trump or Cruz could be the party’s leader in 2016. Not just because they fear Trump or Cruz could hurt the party’s chances of winning the White House, but because they fear either candidate could undermine the Senate majority.
“If you look specifically at Kelly Ayotte’s race, her race is generally a race to hold the middle,” said New Hampshire GOP operative Tom Rath. “I think she is firmly planted there. The only way to move her out of that is if the national ticket moves strongly to the right. You cannot ask the senator to run 15 points ahead of the top of the ticket.”
According to a report from the Washington Post, McConnell attended a meeting earlier this month with GOP bigwigs in DC aimed at finding a suitable alternative in the event there is a brokered convention in Cleveland. According to that story, McConnell stayed mostly quiet during the dinner, but his very presence speaks to his calculus and his recognition that a certain kind of nominee could be a great detractor from his power.
The threat of a Trump candidacy to the Senate majority isn’t hypothetical, the party has been preparing for it. The Washington Post obtained an NRSC internal memo earlier this month that explicitly prepped candidates for how to run their campaign if Trump is at the top of the ticket.
McConnell, however, is no stranger to going head to head with the anti-establishment. He battled publicly with Cruz in 2013 when the junior senator from Texas led the 16-day government shutdown. He easily fought off a primary challenger in his own Senate race in 2014 and has already publicly distanced his party from Trump after he said he would block all Muslims from entering the country if he were president.
A year after winning a Senate majority, McConnell has overseen the passage of a major highway bill that stalled in the Senate for years. He’s worked on trade and helped guide a landmark education reform bill to a bipartisan 85 to 12 vote.
“We have an extraordinarily strong record of accomplishment for our 2016 class to run on. We have been able to get through bills that have languished for years,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). “McConnell is key to it. He has pushed the committee chairman to get their work done.”
But spending an entire year in contrast with a nominee could be a long slog to preserve his Senate majority. When asked to comment for the story, McConnell’s office said they have stayed out of the presidential primary.
To be clear, McConnell’s Senate majority heading into 2016 was always fragile. Republicans are defending 24 seats in 2016. Democrats only need to keep 10. Making matters worse for Republicans is the reality of the map. Unlike 2014, when Democrats were competing in swing or Republican-leaning states, this cycle, several Republicans find themselves running in swing or Democratic-leaning states. In the Senate, there is recognition that Trump or Cruz would be the same kind of albatross for Republican candidates in Illinois, Florida, New Hampshire and Wisconsin that Obama was in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska in 2014.
“I worry about the top of the ticket affecting every race,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said. McCain is up for re-election in 2016 in Arizona – a state where nearly 11 percent of the voters are Latino– a group Trump has openly disparaged with comments about how immigrants are rapists or generally bad people.
“You hope the American people would examine what we in the Senate have done no matter what, but it is always obvious that top of the ticket does affect elections. Life isn’t fair,” McCain said.
A recent poll showed both Trump and Cruz would lose to Hillary Clinton in a general election match up. The candidates don’t have as much of an appeal for voters in the middle as someone like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush might and even Republican senators agree that is a problem.
“For the most part, the quality of the candidate and the quality of the execution of their campaign is going to influence not only Senate races, but gubernatorial races, too,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) who ran in 2014 and won largely by tying former Sen. Kay Hagen (D) to Obama’s unpopular coattails in the swing state.
“Whoever wins the nomination has to have the ability to appeal to the center of the country, which is up for grabs. They have to do a really good job of understanding that it is not just about getting the party faithful,” Tillis said.
Of course, there is a long list of Senate candidates who have defied the top of the ticket in states where the presidential candidate was blown away. It is possible to execute. In 2012, both Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) ran ahead of President Obama by more than 10 points each.
But McCaskill said some headwinds are even too strong to run against. She said that if Trump or Cruz got the nomination “that could be a good thing for my party.”
McConnell won his majority with Republican candidates tying their opponents to an unpopular president in 2014. Now, it is possible that the most calculating senator could could lose his majority because of a polarizing Republican nominee he was powerless to stop.