Political News

Trump Should Get Behind Romney’s Candidacy, McConnell Says

Posted February 17, 2018 4:53 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell said in an interview Friday that President Donald Trump should rally behind the Senate candidacy of Mitt Romney despite his blistering criticism in 2016, arguing that Romney’s potent bid was an illustration of the Republican Party’s improving fortunes entering a challenging midterm campaign.

“I can’t imagine that he’s not,” McConnell, R-Ky., said when asked whether Trump was comfortable with Romney, who on Friday made official his long-expected candidacy for a Senate seat from Utah. “We don’t want to lose the seat, and this looks like a pretty formidable candidate.”

McConnell, the majority leader, said Romney would enter the Senate with a stature similar to what Hillary Clinton brought as a junior senator. “The best way to think about that, and I told him this a couple of months ago, I said: ‘You’ll be a freshman like Hillary Clinton was,'” McConnell recalled. “He will come in here with a level of national identity and respect that will make him effective from Day 1.”

His glowing appraisal stood in contrast to that of the White House, which aggressively lobbied Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the veteran lawmaker who holds the Utah seat, to seek an eighth term in large part to block Romney’s path. Some close to Trump worry about giving Romney a platform from which he could run for president again, and Romney said in remarks Friday night to Utah Republicans that he would not shy away from taking on the president if necessary.

“I’m not always with the president on what he might say or do, and if that happens, I’ll call them like I see them, the way I have in the past,” Romney said at a party dinner in Provo, adding that he largely supports Trump’s domestic agenda and could work with the White House.

While enthusiastic about the handful of Senate candidates, including Romney, he has helped recruit, McConnell offered a sober assessment of what the party faces in the first midterm election of Trump’s unpopular presidency.

“The odds are that we will lose seats in the House and the Senate,” McConnell said in the 30-minute interview in his Capitol office, adding: “History tells you that, the fired-up nature of the political left tells you that. We go into this cleareyed that this is going to be quite a challenging election.”

But Senate Republicans have a significant structural advantage as they try to protect their one-seat majority in November: They are defending just eight seats, while Democrats have to protect 26, including those of two independents who caucus with them. Of the seats Democrats are trying to retain, 10 are in states that Trump carried in 2016.

And after struggling to woo top-tier candidates in some states, Republicans are starting to find more success as they receive a lift from the tax overhaul they passed in December. In addition to Romney, Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, after heavy lobbying by McConnell and Trump, reversed himself and said Friday that he would challenge Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat seeking re-election in a state the president won by 36 points.

Advisers to Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, in an indication that he intends to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson, a third-term Democrat, have moved to set up a super PAC, according to two Republican officials. And Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, after saying he would not run again and ridiculing Trump, indicated this past week that he may not retire after all.

Corker’s public misgivings, however, have complicated the Tennessee race, where Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a staunch conservative, was already lining up support, and where Democrats landed a formidable candidate, former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

McConnell, who is close to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ally of Corker, was guarded in his comments about the election, but he chuckled when pressed on the incumbent’s apparent change of heart.

“It does underscore that people want to be in the Senate,” he said, trying to make the best of what could become a messy primary contest. “And that’s a different environment from late summer, early fall,” when the Republicans were stung by their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Equally delicate is the fate of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who at 80 has had a series of health problems and whose seat is being eyed by a hard-line state senator, Chris McDaniel, who nearly beat him in a bitter 2014 primary race.

McConnell called it “premature” to assess the prospect of a special election this year to replace Cochran, but did acknowledge that “there could be” one. “It’s up to Sen. Cochran to make that decision,” he said. Privately, though, Republicans are scrambling to protect Cochran’s seat. Party leaders fear that a candidacy by McDaniel could create a competitive race, and perhaps even spiral into a debacle similar to what happened in Alabama in 2017, when Roy S. Moore’s loss gave the state’s Democrats their first Senate election victory in 25 years.

Visiting the White House this past week to help promote Trump’s infrastructure proposal, Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi found himself buttonholed by the president, who, citing the Moore disaster, said Bryant should appoint himself to Cochran’s seat should it become vacant, according to a Republican official briefed on the conversation.

McConnell has also privately encouraged Bryant to take the seat if it becomes available, but the governor has resisted the entreaties. Republicans close to Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, say that while he is not ruling out stepping down this year, he will not contemplate quitting until Congress finishes its 2018 spending bill next month.

More broadly, McConnell said he was open to intervening in some party primary contests, as he did in the Tea Party era, but would do so on a state-by-state basis.

He made clear he was supporting Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, who is running against a pair of immigration hawks to replace Sen. Jeff Flake. And he said he did not want to see Don Blankenship, the former coal mine owner imprisoned for violating federal mine safety standards, become the party’s standard-bearer against Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

McConnell harshly criticized a series of red-state Democrats, but took repeated aim at Manchin, with whom he has tangled in the past and is plainly eager to beat in a state that has otherwise embraced the Republican Party.

“Joe thinks he can just kind of talk his way through all of this, but talk is really cheap when your record doesn’t meet the rhetoric,” McConnell said, noting Manchin’s opposition to a series of Republican measures, including the tax bill.

McConnell acknowledged that some of his candidates were struggling to raise money — “I concede the fundraising problem,” he said. But he said it was largely the result of having to face so many incumbents, who are typically better able to draw donors.

Still, he said that a Supreme Court case, scheduled to be argued Feb. 26, that is expected to curb the ability of public sector unions to automatically deduct dues from their members could have an impact on Democratic fundraising.

He called the case “an example” of why he had found it so important to block former President Barack Obama from replacing Antonin Scalia on the court after his death in 2016, a move that Democrats remain bitter about. And, without being prompted, McConnell said he hoped the court would broadly address what he described as the left’s effort to outlaw gerrymandering.

“What do you think the Founding Fathers had in mind when they gave it to the state legislatures?” he said of redistricting powers. “They thought it was going to be a political exercise.”

While eager to trumpet the tax measure, McConnell said that “the single best thing we’ve done, in conjunction with the administration, are the court appointments,” including that of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

And even though he and Trump heatedly clashed over the summer, McConnell said he had “no complaint” about the president today.

Trump’s re-election, however, will not be McConnell’s top priority in 2020: The famously competitive senator, who will be 78 at that point, revealed that he is fully committed to running for re-election and chided this reporter for not assuming as much.