A Republican is going to win the Alaska Senate race, but that hasn’t stopped Mitch McConnell from plowing millions of dollars into the deep-red state.
McConnell allies say he simply wants to protect Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who faces a serious challenge from fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka. But strategists see a proxy war playing out between McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, and his chief antagonist, former President Donald Trump, who is backing Tshibaka.
“He and Mitch are really at war,” said a Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Republican politics. “Mitch has really taken some actions to poke at Trump.”
Tshibaka is one of a vanishingly small number of Republican Senate candidates who’ve publicly said they would deliver on one of Trump’s main political ambitions: ousting McConnell from Senate leadership.
Even if she wins, McConnell appears poised to remain the top Republican in the Senate. But his behind-the-scenes battle is emerging as a test of Trump’s dominance within the GOP and whether he can become the de facto leader of a Senate Republican caucus that McConnell has controlled for the last 15 years.
“You don’t want to mess with ol’ Mitch,” said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming. “If Trump’s mission of the day is to destroy Mitch McConnell, it’s a failure from the beginning. It’s like a fart in a windstorm.”
Trump has made McConnell a frequent target of his complaints and repeatedly called for him to be ousted from his leadership perch, his anger driven most recently by McConnell’s refusal to help overturn the 2020 election and his condemnation of Trump’s actions during the Jan. 6 riot.
McConnell’s grip on his leadership spot hinges on the makeup of the Republican caucus. Trump’s loyal base gives him some degree of leverage over Republican senators who prize his endorsement. If enough senators allied with Trump take office next year, they could unite to depose McConnell.
But the chances seem remote. A number of candidates Trump has endorsed in Tuesday’s elections are committed to keeping McConnell as leader.
Four Republican senators whom Trump has endorsed for re-election — Chuck Grassley of Iowa, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Tim Scott of South Carolina — all say they would vote to keep McConnell as leader. (Two other incumbents Trump has endorsed — John Kennedy of Louisiana and Mike Crapo of Idaho — declined to comment.)
Herschel Walker, the Senate candidate in Georgia backed by both Trump and McConnell, also says he would back McConnell. Mehmet Oz, the Senate candidate in Pennsylvania whom Trump endorsed over the former hedge fund executive David McCormick, won’t say whether he wants McConnell to remain leader. Nor would another Republican Senate candidate who has gotten Trump’s imprimatur, Ted Budd of North Carolina.
Apart from Tshibaka, Senate Republican candidate Don Bolduc in New Hampshire has said he would vote against McConnell for leader. But even if they win their races, they may have no option: No one has stepped forward to challenge McConnell for the top job, despite Trump’s efforts to recruit someone. (Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., is often mentioned as a possible rival.)
Bolduc’s team isn’t happy that McConnell is steering more money to a Republican-on-Republican fight in Alaska, but it’s downplaying its significance in New Hampshire.
“We don’t know why they did it. But at the end of the day, they spent $20 million beating the hell out of her. So if they take $5 million away, fine. It’s dumb,” said a Bolduc adviser who spoke anonymously without authorization to represent the campaign’s views on the record. “But the fact is it really pissed off our supporters. The grassroots don’t get it. It’s just another reason to hate Mitch McConnell.”
Former Trump White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who as a conservative House member from South Carolina once opted not to vote for fellow Republican John Boehner of Ohio as House speaker, said: “Having been in the shoes of not voting for a leader, it’s fine as long as you have a backup plan. Anarchy for the sake of anarchy is not productive.”
McConnell is already the longest-serving Republican leader in history. He stands to break the record for longevity by a member of either party when the new Congress convenes in early January.
Senators vote for leader by secret ballot, but McConnell believes he already has the position locked up. “I have the votes,” he told CNN last month. (The Republican senator who requested anonymity voiced surprise at McConnell’s prediction and thought it betrayed some nervousness on his part. “I thought it looked kind of defensive,” the senator said.)
Long-standing tensions between McConnell and the former president ended in a bitter breach when McConnell denounced Trump’s actions in a Senate floor speech during the impeachment trial last year. Although he voted to acquit Trump, McConnell called him “practically and morally responsible” for the assault on the Capitol. That didn’t sit well with Trump, who has made McConnell a continuing foil.
After 15 years in the GOP leadership post, McConnell is adept at cementing loyalties inside the caucus.
Alaska is an example.
Trump is targeting Murkowski, who voted to convict him in the impeachment trial. McConnell’s efforts to re-elect her have alienated the state’s Republican Party. Alaska Republican critics say the money would be better spent in more competitive Senate races where Republicans are at greater risk of losing, like those in Georgia, Arizona or Nevada.
“If I could wave a magic wand and talk to both of them [McConnell and Trump], I would tell them to just stop it — both of them,” the Republican senator said.
A super PAC aligned with McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund, has spent more than $5.1 million in ads supporting Murkowski’s re-election, with hundreds of thousands of dollars more scheduled through Election Day, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm.
In a state with a population as small as Alaska’s, those sums blanket the airwaves.
“We have a small population with a limited number of outlets,” said Cynthia Henry, a Republican National Committee member from Alaska. “When you watch the NBC evening news, it runs over and over. Every [commercial] break it’s Mitch McConnell’s ads. It’s over the top.”
Alaska’s Republican Party voted last week to censure McConnell over attack ads directed at Tshibaka. “He should butt out of Alaska,” said Craig Campbell, a Republican National Committee member from Alaska.
An adviser to the McConnell-linked super PAC said he’s simply doing his job as GOP leader: protecting incumbent Republicans, even if it means denigrating GOP challengers.
Mulvaney said: “Success is defined by whether Republicans have the majority. If we win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Georgia, it’s going to be a great night for Donald Trump, regardless of who the majority leader is. If we don’t take the Senate, it’s going to be a dismal night for Donald Trump, regardless of who the leader is.”