- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mitch McConnell has been the Senate Republican leader for more than a decade, but never has his influence been more felt than this election year as he tries to defend his party’s slim majority against Democrats riding an anti-Trump wave.

Whether he is shaping the agenda for incumbents or putting his finger on the scales to help pick nominees for open seats, Mr. McConnell — as well as President Trump — is the biggest factor in control of the Senate.

Defenders say Mr. McConnell has handled both roles masterfully. Republicans can run on a tax cut, a new Supreme Court justice and a host of erased Obama-era regulations. The majority leader also is working to make sure weak candidates don’t win the party’s nomination in key states.

But some insurgent Republicans whom Mr. McConnell is working to defeat say he will cost the party seats it otherwise would win in November. They also accuse him of undercutting Mr. Trump and the conservative movement by backing candidates who are less committed to the president’s agenda.

“If Mitch were balancing the budget and passing real tax cuts for the middle class and had an alternative to Obamacare that gave people quality health insurance at a lower cost, then interfere all you want,” said Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Chris McDaniel, an insurgent Republican in Mississippi who is running for a Senate seat.

Otherwise, Mr. Tyler said, he should butt out.

Mr. McConnell, now in his sixth term from Kentucky, has earned the reputation as a masterful tactician who can count votes and strike deals. He served as minority leader from 2007 to 2014 and then ascended to majority leader when Republicans took control of the Senate in early 2015.

As majority leader, he has struggled to pass an Obamacare repeal or an immigration bill, has been unable to advance major gun rights or pro-life legislation, and has overseen a massive jump in debt and spending.

But he delivered a $1.5 trillion tax cut package and an end to Obamacare’s individual mandate. In perhaps his biggest coup, he held off action on President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court so the new president could fill the vacancy. That turned out to be Mr. Trump, who picked conservative star Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

“His style may translate to insider or realpolitik, which drives his opponents crazy, but overall his results on Gorsuch and tax reform are historic,” said Kevin Sheridan, a Republican Party strategist. “Will those accomplishments plus judges, deregulation and military funding be enough in 2018? Probably.”

Mr. McConnell’s office declined requests to comment for this article, but the senator told reporters last week that the country has made “dramatic progress” under Republican governance.

“Everybody’s excited about the condition of the economy and the way the country seems to be in an upbeat mood heading into the fall election,” he said.

A number of Republicans are still antsy, though. They sent an official request to Mr. McConnell this week asking him to cancel their usual monthlong summer recess and keep the Senate in session to make headway on Mr. Trump’s nominations and on the budget, hoping to head off a shutdown showdown just before elections.

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, said Mr. McConnell should heed the request. He pointed to bills that have passed the House but have yet to see action in the Senate because of a sluggish floor schedule.

“I believe that the control of the House, what happens in November, lies at the feet of one person: Mitch McConnell, because of the inability to do stuff on the Senate side and excite the grass roots,” Mr. Pye said.

“There is just not a whole lot to show, and that is actually killing Republican prospects,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks.

Mr. McConnell’s willingness to step into Republican Party primaries is also raising eyebrows for a party that has long debated how much of a role Washington should play in picking candidates in the states. After a series of disastrous interventions in primaries during the tea party wave in 2010, Republican leaders said they would back off — only to have unpalatable nominees cost the party winnable seats.

Add to that a lingering sense of tension between Mr. Trump’s version of the Republican Party and Mr. McConnell’s more establishment-minded version, and the chances for nasty primaries are obvious.

In Arizona, all three major Republicans seeking the state’s open Senate seat claim to be the best Trump picks — but Mr. McConnell is backing Rep. Martha McSally over former state lawmaker Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“They want to stick their nose into Arizona and try and pick our senator,” Mrs. Ward said at a recent event.

Mr. McConnell also is facing backlash in Mississippi. He is supporting Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, who was recently appointed to former Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat, over Mr. McDaniel.

Mr. Tyler, the adviser to Mr. McDaniel, said Washington Republicans don’t appear to have learned their lesson from the special election last year in deep-red Alabama, where the Republican Senate candidate suffered an embarrassing loss to Democrat Doug Jones.

“It wasn’t a blue wave; it was the Mitch McConnell tornado that gave that seat to Doug Jones,” Mr. Tyler said.

In that case, Republican voters rejected Mr. McConnell’s preferred nominee and instead put maverick former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore against Mr. Jones. Faced with accusations of sexual relations with teenage girls, Mr. Moore went down to defeat.

Mr. McConnell’s team makes no apologies for his active role.

“When we see a choice between someone who would certainly lose the race and somebody who would certainly win the race, we will sometimes get involved,” Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, recently said on MSNBC.

Mr. McConnell is focused on Republican-held seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee and Democrat-controlled seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

In Nevada, the Senate Leadership Fund helped clear the way for Sen. Dean Heller by spending money against primary challenger Danny Tarkanian, who later heeded the advice of Mr. Trump by pulling the plug on his challenge and instead set his sights on the House.

Mr. Heller is one of the senators who signed on to the request to keep the Senate in session through the summer. Keith Schipper, a Heller campaign spokesman, said his boss would like to get more accomplished before the elections but is confident he has compiled a “great record” under Mr. McConnell.

“I think anybody would always say they can wish they can have more,” Mr. Schipper said.

Mr. McConnell scored another win last week when he and Mr. Trump helped steer the Republican nomination in West Virginia toward state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and away from Don Blankenship.

Updated from earlier version, correcting first name for Mr. Pye.

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