Are McConnell's days as minority leader numbered?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Until recently I would have laughed at that question and said no but Lindsey Graham’s interview on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday makes me wonder. Watch the last two minutes here when Graham unsubtly suggests that Senate Republicans can’t stick with McConnell as head of the caucus if Trump continues to despise him.

If you don’t have a relationship with Trump, he says at one point, “you cannot be effective.” Then, more starkly at the end of the clip, “If you’re going to lead this party in the House and the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with Donald Trump or it will not work.”

Mitch McConnell famously has no relationship with Trump. If I’m not mistaken, the last time they spoke was almost a year ago to the day when Trump was leaning on McConnell to join the effort to overturn the election. McConnell’s parting words to him allegedly were, “You lost the election, the Electoral College has spoken.” Three months later, he voted against conviction at Trump’s impeachment trial but then condemned him in a floor speech in which he blamed Trump for the insurrection.

Trump is usually willing to forgive and forget affronts from political enemies so long as they’re willing to come crawling to him and kiss the ring. But I’m not sure he’s willing with McConnell after that floor speech. And McConnell has enough stature in his own right in the twilight of his career that I can’t imagine him prostrating himself to Trump.

So there won’t be a working relationship. Instead there’ll be more statements like this, which are a regular occurrence lately:

Graham must know that rapprochement between Trump and McConnell isn’t in the offing in the near term, so why would he declare that certain unnamed Republican leaders can’t be effective without Trump’s support?

Hmmmm.

Coincidentally, a day after his interview, Lisa Murkowski’s Trump-backed primary challenger in Alaska, Kelly Tshibaka, issued a statement pledging not to support McConnell for caucus leader if she ends up in the Senate:

“Mitch McConnell has repeatedly bailed out Joe Biden, giving him gifts of Senate votes, which are the only things keeping the Biden administration on life support. As an example, after rescuing Biden with the last debt ceiling increase, McConnell said he would never do it again. But he just did, and he had Lisa Murkowski’s help in doing so. The actions of McConnell and Murkowski on the debt ceiling show that it’s the political elites pitted against real Americans. When I defeat Murkowski and become Alaska’s next U.S. Senator, I will not support Mitch McConnell as leader. It’s time for new, America First leadership in the Senate.”

That’s two separate hints in less than a day from Trump allies, one a senator and the other an aspirant, that McConnell shouldn’t be head of the caucus anymore. Do we think Trump put them up to saying it, demanding some support for his drumbeat of “McConnell must go” rants? Or do we think they read those statements and decided to take up the baton of “McConnell must go” on their own initiative to earn favor with their master?

Either way, with the exception of Brian Kemp, there’s no one in the party against whom Trump currently holds a more embittered grudge than McConnell. Maybe he’s quietly working the phones behind the scenes to Senate Republicans to urge them to depose him. Virtually everyone in the caucus prefers McConnell to Trump on the merits, I’m sure, but most of them prefer being senators even more. And if Trump makes ousting McConnell the new party litmus test, GOP incumbents who refuse will soon be facing messages like this from MAGAs in their primaries:

Scroll through the list of 50 Senate Republicans here and ask yourself how many are so chummy with McConnell and/or so secure in their seats that they might plausibly tell Trump to get bent if he demanded that they get rid of Mitch. The strategic virtue of Trump being so insanely vindictive against the likes of Kemp is that it serves as a warning to other Republicans weighing whether to cross him that he won’t forget if they do. If Rick Scott, say, decides that he feels obliged to continue to back McConnell, Trump might tell him that he’ll recruit a primary challenger to Scott in 2024 and he’ll mean it.

McConnell’s asset in the near term is that there are five Republicans retiring after the midterms who have nothing to fear from Trump. All five — Burr, Toomey, Portman, Shelby, and Blunt — would almost certainly back Mitch. Presumably so would John Thune (who’s also weighing retirement) and John Barrasso, McConnell’s second and third in command. Let’s also go ahead and include the five Republicans who voted to convict Trump in February — Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Sasse, and Cassidy — as likely McConnell votes since they’ve already showed meaningful independence from Trump. (Burr and Toomey also voted to convict.) That’s 13 votes for McConnell, including his own vote, and there’ll probably be a few more from longtime friends like John Cornyn. He’d need 26 votes, we might expect, to be reelected as caucus leader.

But there are votes out there for a Trump-backed challenger too. All of the populists would be forced to do Trump’s bidding, especially the ones who want to run for president eventually. That means Cruz, Hawley, Cotton, and Rand Paul as well as Ron Johnson, Marsha Blackburn, Bill Hagerty, and Tommy Tuberville. Others seem Trumpy-friendly enough that they might be gettable if Trump leans heavily on them: Tim Scott, Chuck Grassley, Jim Inhofe, John Kennedy, Mike Lee, and Thom Tillis. The two Floridians, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, would also come under heavy pressure to comply given Trump’s influence in their home state. And then there’s Lindsey Graham, the man who’s hinting publicly that McConnell’s position is untenable. Does Lindsey imagine himself as Mitch’s Trump-backed successor? He’s always been about self-advancement, which is why he glommed onto Trump after so many years of glomming onto John McCain. Why wouldn’t he aim to become minority leader?

That’s 17 votes for the Trumpy challenger to McConnell. The new caucus leader would be decided by the 20+ remaining Republicans like Kevin Cramer, Steve Daines, Jerry Moran, Cynthia Lummis, etc, who tend to keep their heads down and vote with the party. Most of them represent blood red states. How many will be willing to risk their own seats and take a bullet for McConnell by telling Trump no if he asks them to oppose Mitch?

The math here gets worse for McConnell after the midterms since the five retirees I mentioned will be gone, likely replaced with Republicans who’ll be slavishly loyal to Trump’s wishes in the name of staying on the right side of populist voters back home. If candidates like Tshibaka end up replacing establishmentarians like Murkowski, the math starts to get tricky for Mitch. It makes me wonder if he won’t decide to step down “voluntarily” as caucus chief after the midterms, which might not pain him if the GOP is still in the minority but will pain him deeply if they’re back in charge.