In April, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the environment for Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections was “better than it was in 1994,” when Republicans picked up 54 House seats and 8 Senate seats.*
“From an atmospheric point of view,” he said, “it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats.”
He cautioned, though, that Republicans could still blow it if they didn’t nominate the right candidates. “You can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win,” he said.
Well, as we like to say on the internet: You won’t believe what happened next.
Democrats clinched control of the Senate on Saturday night when the Nevada Senate race was called in Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s favor. Instead of a repeat of the 1994 red wave, Democrats actually have a chance of increasing the size of their Senate majority if they prevail in a December runoff in Georgia.
There are a couple of straightforward lessons here for Senate Republicans in shock at how they screwed this up. The first is that if you work to fulfill a decades-long quest to install a Supreme Court that will eliminate constitutional rights, prepare to live with the electoral consequences of that Supreme Court eliminating constitutional rights. The other, as McConnell said in April, is to not nominate dodos in coin-flip states.
But depending on how the staggering amount of blame-shifting going on in Senate Republican circles right now shakes out, Republicans may ultimately misdiagnose the problem.
Internal Senate Republican leadership politics, since Mitch McConnell took over in 2007, have been automatic. The conference unanimously reelects McConnell as its leader, and a cast of potential successors rotates as his no. 2 for six years at a time. Though the Republican base has always griped about McConnell, that griping has never affected his power within the Capitol.
For the first time, there’s a real debate about McConnell now. On Friday, a group of Senate Republicans including Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Rick Scott circulated a letter trying to delay leadership elections from when they’re scheduled next week, arguing, “we need to have serious discussions within our conference as to why and what we can do to improve our chances in 2024.” Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Cynthia Lummis, and Josh Hawley were publicly supportive of delaying the elections, too. (The leadership elections, as of now, have not been delayed.)
In the wake of Tuesday’s poor results, Scott, the Republican campaign chair, reportedly dropped a plan to run against McConnell. But he’s still blaming McConnell for the blown election without specifically naming him.
“I think we didn’t have enough of a positive message,” Scott said on Fox. “We said everything about how bad the Biden agenda was. It’s bad, the Democrats are radical, but we have to have a plan of what we stand for.” This was a central strategic difference between him and McConnell: McConnell wanted to keep the message focused on Biden’s failures, while Scott wanted to release a Republican agenda. (If you’ll recall, Scott did release an agenda, in February, and it became fodder for Democratic campaign ads across the country throughout the election.) Scott also blamed Republican leaders for muddling the party’s message by “caving” to Democrats on gun legislation, the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the debt ceiling.
Many on the right are also consolidating around the belief that Republicans lost the Senate because of certain strategic decisions made by McConnell’s aligned super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund. The group, which spent north of $200 million, trained its firepower on Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. It did, however, leave Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters to twist in the wind against Sen. Mark Kelly, while putting some money into Alaska to defend Sen. Lisa Murkowski against a Republican challenger, Kelly Tshibaka. As far as the Alaska decision goes, supporting incumbents is the job of a party leader, even if the incumbent is running against a member of the same party. And Arizona? Well, according to the New York Times, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund, Steven Law, said over the summer that Masters “had scored the worst focus group results of any candidate he had ever seen,” one of the more hilariously mean leaked details from all of the 2022 campaign postmortems.
It’s funny. Nowhere in this blame game has anyone brought up the major factor in Senate Republicans’ midterm screw-up—the one Republicans really could blame McConnell for. They could argue that it was electorally unwise for him to have spent so much capital over the last six years engineering a 6-to-3 conservative Supreme Court that would deliver unpopular policy edicts, costing Republicans at the polls. But everyone’s still on the same page about that.
Regardless, the rush on the right—and among ambitious Senate Republicans hoping, someday, to win a Republican presidential primary—to blame McConnell for the losses is an indication that the right still isn’t prepared to acknowledge the core problem.
The current Democratic majority, which came into existence after two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5, 2021, is Donald Trump’s fault. Mehmet Oz is Trump’s fault. J.D. Vance, whose more-competitive-than-necessary race required McConnell’s PAC to spend over $30 million in Ohio, money that could have gone elsewhere, is Trump’s fault. Herschel Walker still could become a senator pending the Georgia Senate runoff, but a better Republican candidate in Georgia would not have lagged behind Gov. Brian Kemp’s lead by five points. A better candidate would have won outright on Tuesday. Walker is Trump’s fault. Trump and McConnell share some blame for Adam Laxalt in Nevada. But in a world where an experienced politician like Laxalt didn’t become a 2020 election denier in order to be competitive in a 2022 primary, he could’ve had a little less baggage. Blake Masters could have won the Arizona primary without Trump’s endorsement (although he got that anyway). But the absence of Gov. Doug Ducey, a much better candidate, contending in that primary is Trump’s fault.
There’s been much talk since the election that Republicans might finally be turning on Trump after he directly cost them seat after seat in the midterms. But what we’re seeing so far is acquiescence to the Trump-generated, blame-shifting narrative that it’s McConnell’s fault, in effect, for doing an inadequate job shining up the lousy Senate candidates Trump, and Trumpism, left him with.
Many of these Senate Republicans who want to delay leadership elections would love to see the party turn on Trump. They know Trump is a drag on the party, and they want him to step aside so they can be president. As ever, though, they don’t want to be the ones who do the turning. It’s much easier to ride with the base, point the finger at Mitch McConnell, and let Trump wriggle out of another jam.
Maybe they’ll try to wrest the party back from Trump after the next blown election. Yeah, maybe next time…
Correction, Nov. 15, 2022: This article originally misidentified Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader. He’s the Senate minority leader.