Dec 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

McConnell: No legislative agenda for 2022 midterms

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen walking to the Senate Chamber on Thursday.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell has told colleagues and donors Senate Republicans won't release a legislative agenda before next year's midterms, according to people who've attended private meetings with the minority leader.

Why it matters: Every midterm cycle, there are Republican donors and operatives who argue the party should release a positive, pro-active governing outline around which candidates can rally. McConnell adamantly rejects this idea, preferring to skewer Democrats for their perceived failures.

Behind the scenes: On the night of Nov. 16, McConnell met with donors, lobbyists and a group of Republican senators in a private function room upstairs at the Capitol Hill Club. The 2022 agenda was on the menu.

  • In attendance was Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which convened the dinner.
  • Also on hand were some Republican senators up for re-election next year: Chuck Grassley of Iowa, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Boozman of Arkansas.
  • Each senator sat at his own table with donors, and each spoke for a few minutes about his re-election race. A microphone was passed around for a question-and-answer session.

A donor asked a question that could only be answered by McConnell. According to a source in the room, the donor said something to the effect of: We all know what's wrong with the Democrats, but what are we going to be running on to help us win?

  • McConnell's response was something to the effect of, With all respect, that's not what we're doing, the source said.

McConnell has long held the view that putting out an agenda ahead of midterm elections is a mistake — at least for Senate Republicans, the sources told Axios.

  • He believes his view has been vindicated by recent history. McConnell points, in particular, to when he led Republicans to win back the Senate in the 2014 midterms without proposing an agenda.
  • Some donors and operatives point to a different memory: the "Contract with America." House Republicans released a governing action plan before the 1994 midterm elections, and their party won back unified control of Congress for the first time in nearly 50 years.

The current House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, is a "Contract with America" guy. He's told his colleagues he thinks it's important they tell voters what they support — not just what they oppose.

  • He wants to release a legislative agenda to unite the conference ahead of the midterms, according to sources with direct knowledge of his caucus statements.
  • McCarthy's already released a first element: what he calls the "Parents Bill of Rights."
  • He's also appointed Republican members to seven "issue-specific task forces" to work up this pre-midterm agenda.

During the mid-November dinner, McConnell told the donor it would be the job of the next Republican nominee for president in 2024 to lay out the party's future agenda.

  • Until then, Republicans should be 100% focused on Democrats and all the "terrible" things they're doing to the country, McConnell said, according to the source.
  • McConnell made clear, the source said, the entire focus of the 2022 campaign should be about the things the Democrats are doing wrong. He cited the history of midterm losses for the party in power.

Asked about this dinner and the intra-party conversation, Scott, the NRSC chair, told Axios: "There's some conversation that people would like to have some agreement that everybody runs on something. That sounds good, but it's hard to do."

  • A McConnell spokesman declined comment.

Between the lines: A top GOP operative, who didn't attend the dinner but has often heard such conversations involving McConnell, said these kinds of discussions happen regularly with the Republican leader.

  • "It happens all the time," the source told Axios. "Donors especially are always asking for an agenda of some kind and McConnell pushes back hard. Because he knows that all it does is take the focus off unpopular Dem policies and gives Dems something tangible to tear apart."
  • "One of the biggest mistakes challengers often make is thinking campaigns are about them and their ideas," the source continued. "No one gives a sh-t about that. Elections are referendums on incumbents."
  • "Challengers need to keep the focus on what incumbents promised and point out how they failed to deliver and how that has negatively impacted voters' lives," the source said.

The bottom line: Current polls appear to support McConnell's political calculation.

  • By almost any measure — from President Biden's approval rating to the generic ballot — Republicans are enjoying their best political environment for a decade.
  • They're in this position having barely uttered a word about their plans for the future.
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