Mitch McConnell voted to acquit Donald Trump, then publicly torched him — encapsulating the dilemma of the man who now must guide a GOP riven by infighting over whether it’s the party of Trump or the center-right party he wants them to be.
McConnell is the de facto leader of the GOP for at least the next two years, as Trump remains exiled in Florida with no real public platform. And though McConnell is done talking about the former president after giving his most critical remarks ever about Trump on Saturday, he’s well aware that they may be on a collision course.
McConnell needs to pick up just one Senate seat to become majority leader again, though he’s facing perhaps even bigger political headaches than in the Tea Party era. But McConnell made clear in a Saturday evening interview that he will not hesitate to wade into future primary races if a Trump-backed candidate — like, say, Kelli Ward in Arizona or the former president’s daughter-in-law Lara in North Carolina — threatens his bid to retake the majority.
“My goal is, in every way possible, to have nominees representing the Republican Party who can win in November,” McConnell said by telephone. “Some of them may be people the former president likes. Some of them may not be. The only thing I care about is electability.”
The Kentuckian made clear that “I’m not predicting the president would support people who couldn’t win. But I do think electability — not who supports who — is the critical point.”
The Senate GOP has largely followed McConnell’s guidance over the past five years as Trump’s hold over the party grew more intense. McConnell didn’t comment on the tweets, and so, neither did most of his Republicans.
His job has become even trickier in a unique 50-vote minority. Yet trying to guide Republicans after a presidential loss is not new for McConnell: After former President Barack Obama’s victories, McConnell shaped Republicans into an occasionally brutal, often effective opposition force to Obama’s agenda.
Now the 78-year-old has a similar veto power over some of President Joe Biden’s legislative platform. His willingness to dive into tough primary fights, trying to root out the type of candidates that plagued the GOP in 2010 and 2012, is a potent weapon in his shadow battle against Trump. But there’s no guarantee he can win it.
“To the degree that there’s a titular leader for the party,” it’s McConnell, said GOP whip Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). Trump has threatened Thune with a primary challenge, making the South Dakotan one of several in McConnell’s conference who could face Trump-inspired challenges in deep-red states.