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McConnell calls Trump ‘diminished’ and vows not to bow to his candidates in 2024


WASHINGTON — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell rolled over to candidates hand-picked by former President Donald Trump in competitive midterm races, resulting in shocking losses and a larger Democratic majority that withstood all odds.

He promises not to let that happen again, insisting he will “actively seek out quality candidates” to promote in the 2024 primaries.

In a rare and pointed critique of the former president, who is looking to return in two years, McConnell said Trump’s power was waning and called on him to forfeit the Senate primaries.

“Here’s what I think has changed: I think the former president’s political influence has diminished,” McConnell told NBC News on Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office.

The diminished position made McConnell — and by extension his allies, like the deep-pocketed Senate Leadership Fund super PAC — “less inclined to accept any cards that might be dealt to us,” he said.

“We can do a better job with less potential interference,” he said. “The former president may have other things to do.”

McConnell also accused Trump of tarnishing the party’s image among crucial independent and swing voters, who rejected GOP Senate candidates in states that decided the majority. He said the party underperformed in “every state” – including the red state of Ohio, which Republicans narrowly won – and its performance was “fatal” in Arizona, New Hampshire and in Georgia.

“We lost the support we needed among independents and moderate Republicans, mainly because of the opinion they had of us as a party – largely made by the former president – ​​that we were kind of mean and tended towards chaos,” McConnell said. “And oddly enough, even though this subset of voters didn’t approve of President Biden, they repeatedly didn’t trust us enough to give us the majority we needed.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks during a campaign rally Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Greensboro, Georgia. Walker is in a runoff with incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.
Herschel Walker in Greensboro, Ga.John Bazemore/AP

The harsh criticism of McConnell increases tension between the two GOP leaders ahead of a potentially chaotic two years for the party, which faces deep divisions over government and policy strategy as it prepares to claim control of the House and looks to 2024.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

McConnell defended his decision not to intervene in most of the 2022 Senate primaries. He said he was “looking at the landscape” and believed he only had two chances to pick favorites against flawed candidates: in Missouri, to defeat scandal-ridden Eric Greitens; and in Alabama, to arrest far-right Rep. Mo Brooks.

“In the other states, Trump’s support was so big – we could have spent a lot of money, maybe tried to come up with a different candidate and maybe not succeeded,” he said. “And so my conclusion was that everywhere else we had to play with the cards that were dealt.”

McConnell is looking to turn the page on a disastrous Senate cycle for the GOP and seize various pickup opportunities to win a majority in 2024. Democrats are defending three seats in red states and five more in tightly divided states. Their best hopes of reversing seats lie in Republican-leaning Florida and Texas. And yet, it is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. – not McConnell – who radiates confidence to win a majority in 2024.

McConnell has been locked in a bitter feud with a vengeful Trump after criticizing his actions on Jan. 6, 2021 — and the relationship presents landmines for the GOP in 2024, particularly if Trump is its nominee. McConnell recognizes these landmines — he won’t endorse them in the presidential primary. He suggested that Trump could no longer win the nomination, but he left the door open to support him in the general election if he did.

He also spent much of 2022 bickering over strategy with Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the GOP campaign leader in the Senate. Scott rejects McConnell’s view that Trump was the problem – he argues that Republicans lost because they failed to deliver an agenda that inspires voters. Scott even issued a rare challenge to McConnell for the top caucus job and lost.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) and United States President Donald Trump arrive for the Republican Senate Policy Luncheon at the United States Capitol on October 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump joined the senators to talk about upcoming legislation, including the GOP's proposed tax cuts and reform. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., then President Donald Trump at the United States Capitol on October 24, 2017.File Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Still, McConnell has played his own part in the GOP’s underperformance this year. Using aggressive parliamentary tactics, he arguably played a bigger role than anyone in building the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which sparked a revolt among abortion-rights supporters when she knocked down Roe against Wade in Dobbs against Jackson Women’s Health. Organization in June.

Asked repeatedly about the role of the Dobbs decision in the GOP’s failures, McConnell expressed no regret.

He acknowledged that the decision “generated enthusiasm among Democrats, unsurprisingly,” in the midterm elections. But he said GOP turnout was “good” and argued abortion was not the reason leading independents and swing voters backed Democrats.

“They may have been shelled with their base,” McConnell said. But he insisted: “Our biggest problem was the quality of the candidates.”

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