Dec 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Trump Republicans eager to dethrone McConnell as GOP leader

Photo Illustration of Mitch McConnell surrounded by elephant trunks.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell is facing a frontal assault from emboldened pro-Trump Republicans eager to unseat him as the Senate’s GOP leader.

Why it matters: The Kentuckian has long been viewed as the most powerful Republican in Congress, a figure many in the party have feared turning into an enemy. His endurance has allowed him to reshape the Supreme Court and dictate much of the national political agenda for over a decade.

  • Taking on McConnell risks not only triggering his wrath in the Capitol but making candidate-critics vulnerable to targeting by his ample supply of campaign cash.
  • The challengers have been emboldened as Donald Trump has lambasted McConnell — giving them both political and financial cover.
  • "What is wrong with this Broken Old Crow?" the former president said in a statement tweeted by his spokesperson on Sunday. "He's hurting the Republican Senators and the Republican Party. When will they vote him out of Leadership?"

Between the lines: Kelly Tshibaka, a primary challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said Monday that “when I defeat Murkowski and become Alaska’s next U.S. senator, I will not support Mitch McConnell as leader.

  • "It’s time for new, America First leadership in the Senate," she said, echoing a Trump theme.
  • Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, running to fill Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) upcoming vacant seat, made a similar pledge in September.

Steven Cheung, a Greitens adviser and former Trump administration official, told Axios opposing McConnell could become a “litmus test” for campaigns eager to show their loyalty to Trump.

  • Cheung said research from GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio’s team indicated that “in the primary, if you're anti-Mitch, your numbers go up.”
  • “It’s a test for how Trumpian you are."
  • McConnell gave Trump political cover for much of his presidency, with his wife, Elaine Chao, serving in the Cabinet as Transportation secretary.
  • The two had a falling out after McConnell criticized Trump for challenging the 2020 election results.

Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential conservatives in the country, castigated McConnell during his Fox News show last week — and promised to make the minority leader a consistent object of scorn in future segments.

  • “In Washington, he’s known as the nastiest old woman in town,” Carlson said on his show last week during a segment about Bob Dole’s funeral.
  • “This is hardly the first time McConnell has done something vicious like this, but we thought going forward we would start telling you about it, because why wouldn’t we?”
  • A national Republican consultant working on House and Senate races told Axios: “I don’t think there is anyone, with the possible exception of Trump, who can do more damage to your credibility with GOP voters than Tucker."

GOP donors also are furious with McConnell and other Republicans who voted for President Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In addition, several Senate Republicans have privately and publicly criticized McConnell for cutting a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to raise the debt ceiling.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said: “I don’t like that a lot. … What we did is promised one thing and delivered another.”
  • Graham then fired a warning shot: “If we’re going to be successful in 2022, we’re going to have to work together as a team. And here’s what I would say to every Republican: If you want to be … a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, and you don’t have a working relationship with Donald Trump, you cannot be effective. So, I hope we’ll get on the same page here.”
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