Premium

Trump 1, Mitch 0: I think Herschel Walker will be a good Senate candidate for us in Georgia, says McConnell

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Yesterday it sounded like he was ready to go to war with Trump in next year’s primaries, today it sounds like he’s surrendering.

What happened? I thought we were all set for a battle for the soul of the GOP between Mitch’s “electable” candidates and Trump’s MAGA cronies.

This isn’t a case of McConnell being afraid to engage, I suspect, but rather him executing a tactical retreat knowing that this battle is unwinnable. Herschel Walker’s going to be the GOP Senate nominee in Georgia. Mitch and the establishment can either waste their time and money futilely trying to avert that outcome and potentially weakening the party before the general election or they can make peace with it and pick their battles elsewhere. McConnell made the coldly rational choice here, as usual.

As McConnell surveys Trump’s picks in Senate battlegrounds, he’s concluded that “I don’t believe they’re troubling.”

McConnell even sees a path to victory for Walker, the former NFL star who is dogged by allegations of past erratic behavior, including threats to his ex-wife. Trump essentially recruited Walker in Georgia, making him the instant favorite to win the GOP nomination. And McConnell is OK with that.

“There are some things written that indicate he’s had some challenges in his life. On the other hand, the good news is, he’s made several impressive performances on national television. His whole team is the same team around [former Sen.] Johnny Isakson,” McConnell said in an interview this week. “He’s called me; we had a good conversation. I think there’s every indication he’s going to be a good candidate.”…

“I don’t see Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock out there,” McConnell said, referring to toxic Republican Senate nominees who blew winnable races in 2010 and 2012. “I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to end up with a nominee who can’t win in November.”

McConnell doesn’t see any Todd Akin or Sharron Angle potential in … this guy?

Read this AP dispatch from July about some of the sketchier moments of Walker’s personal life, which feels interminable by the end because there’s so much ground to cover. He had multiple personality disorder. He played Russian roulette for sport, as he told Howard Stern in the clip above. He briefly considered killing a guy for not delivering car that he’d purchased on time. He reportedly threatened to murder his ex-wife more than once (and said as much to members of her family). A court ended up granting her a protective order and seized one of Walker’s guns temporarily for fear of what he might do with it.

A former girlfriend also called the police on him in 2012. “He told her that he was going to come and sit outside her apartment and ‘blow her head off when she came outside,’” the police report claimed. “He then told her that he was going to ‘blow his head off’ after he killed her.” Walker wasn’t charged and denies that it ever happened.

Even so, does that sound like the biography of a recruit about whom Mitch McConnell might typically say, “I think there’s every indication he’s going to be a good candidate”? McConnell is the supreme example of a no-nonsense politician who prizes “electability” above all things. Find him the most boring conservative in any given state and elect that guy to the Senate and McConnell will be happy as a clam, knowing that that’ll be a reliable vote for his agenda for years, maybe decades, to come. So why is he so high on Herschel Walker?

It’s simple. He’s seen the polls.

Walker may be loopy but he’s also one of Georgia’s greatest sports icons, a household name for decades. Maybe his personal foibles would have rendered him unelectable in a primary despite that exalted status a decade ago but they certainly won’t now. The post-Trump GOP is amoral; all you need to do to be absolved of your sins is show a willingness to “fight.” And threatening to blow your wife’s head off does suggest a certain degree of pugnacity.

The point is, McConnell’s not going to beat him in a primary. And even if he did figure out a way to beat him, he’d have to reckon with a troubling asymmetry between his wing of the party and Trump’s. McConnell would never go against a Republican in a general election, viewing that as supremely self-defeating. But Trump doesn’t care about the party. He cares about loyalty to him as a person. So if Cocaine Mitch figured out a way to tank Walker, it’s an open question whether Trump would try to take revenge by tanking McConnell’s candidate in the general election. Case in point:

Though he hasn’t endorsed any of Kemp’s long-shot challengers, the former president continues to rail against the governor he once embraced, including in a radio interview Thursday. He told host John Fredericks that he views Kemp “almost like he’s a Democrat in disguise.”

“Kemp is a disaster. He’s a disaster. He did everything he could to make sure we lost the election. He was terrible,” Trump said, adding: “He’s not going to be able to win the general election anyway because the base isn’t going to show up.”

Would Trump encourage the base not to show up for a McConnell-backed candidate who beat his own guy in a primary? Mitch has to wonder.

In theory, McConnell could be angling for a quid pro quo with Trump. There are other candidates across the map whom he’s more invested in, like getting Lisa Murkowski reelected in Alaska and trying to entice Doug Ducey into the Arizona Senate race against Mark Kelly. Maybe McConnell’s hoping to horse-trade with the former president: If he stays out of Walker’s way in the Georgia primary, conceivably Trump will agree to stay out of Ducey’s way. But Trump would never make that deal. Again, he doesn’t care about the party, only about settling scores and nursing his grievances. His interest in Arizona isn’t partisan, it’s making sure that Ducey pays some sort of professional price for not rigging the election in Trump’s favor last year.

And McConnell surely knows that so I doubt he’s expecting to horse-trade with 45. More likely is that he’s giving up on the Georgia primary because he knows the primaries in Alaska and Arizona will be hotly contested and he wants to reserve his resources to take on Trump there. It’d be hard, but there’s a chance he could get Murkowski and Ducey elected even with Trump opposed. He’s not going to get some Georgia Republican past a Trump-backed Walker.