In the past two years, Mitch McConnell was dealt a humiliating defeat on health care and lost a Senate seat in ruby-red Alabama — all while navigating a tumultuous relationship with President Trump, a man polar opposite in temperament from the steely majority leader.
Yet McConnell has worked with Trump to shepherd two conservatives onto the Supreme Court, ensure confirmation of 82 other judges and steer the first tax-code overhaul in three decades, probably positioning Senate Republicans to retain their delicate majority in Tuesday’s election despite Trump’s unpopularity and a national mood that would otherwise sweep them out of power.
McConnell has hitched his Senate fortunes to Trump, knowing the president’s strong support with the base will be key to the party retaining its majority. In a recent White House meeting, McConnell told Trump he was the only figure who could sustain a surge of GOP momentum from the polarizing confirmation fight over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — one of several times Trump has heeded strategic counsel from the majority leader, much to the political and legislative benefit of both men.
After the ugliness between Trump and McConnell last year over the collapse of the health-care-law repeal, McConnell has taken the lead on judges and legislation and created an alliance with a president who can be as erratic as McConnell is steady.
“You know, he goes down as the greatest leader, in my opinion, in history,” Trump said of McConnell, now in his sixth term, at a rally in Kentucky last month. “What we’ve done is incredible together. But he’s better when I’m president than he ever was when anyone else was president.”
Trump and McConnell frequently talk on the phone, and the calls are often impromptu. The relationship between the two has improved dramatically since the health-care vote in July 2017 prompted an angry “Mitch, get back to work” tweet from Trump and the GOP establishment lost an otherwise winnable Senate seat in Alabama by nominating Roy Moore, who was accused by more than half a dozen women of pursuing them when they were teenagers.
“They’re learning from each other,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a McConnell ally, said in an interview earlier this year about the leader and the president. “One could not imagine two more different political styles. One is the daily tweetstorm, and the other believes silence is a virtue. One is episodic, and the other is redundancy.”
In the Senate battlegrounds, Republican voters are still energized, GOP officials say, by the contentious fight over Kavanaugh, which McConnell has credited for galvanizing the party’s base, which up to that point had been lacking.
Rather than bailing on Kavanaugh amid allegations of sexual assault, McConnell stood by the nominee and capitalized on the furor as Democrats tried to defeat Trump’s choice. Kavanaugh denied the allegations, and the Senate narrowly confirmed him.
“The Kavanaugh nomination process upset so many conservatives,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said. “They saw, kind of, the mob rule, and they believe in a presumption of innocence, and they saw that being violated in this process, and it energized a lot of conservatives.”
This election cycle, McConnell has been blessed with an extremely favorable map, where the major Senate battles are being fought mostly on conservative terrain. Heeding McConnell’s advice, Trump is in the middle of a six-day, 11-rally blitz focused primarily on top-tier Senate races.
But McConnell’s allies say his prospects of keeping the majority are due to more than luck of the map, having knocked out GOP primary contenders who would be unelectable in a general election and engineered legislative wins on defense spending and opioids.
“The last few cycles in particular, he’s played an outsize role in making sure Republicans have a set of cards on Election Day that can win, and that’s basically all you can do,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and political adviser.
McConnell has long eyed nine states as the main Senate battleground: Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is the sole Republican running in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016; Montana; Arizona; Tennessee; North Dakota; Missouri; Indiana; West Virginia and Florida.
With one major exception in Alabama, McConnell and other strategists working to elect Republicans have staved off potential electoral disasters in the GOP primaries, although some nominees emerged politically bruised.
In Arizona, McConnell’s favored candidate, Rep. Martha McSally, won the GOP nomination over two much more divisive candidates. Trump publicly nudged Republican Danny Tarkanian out of his challenge to Heller, who was able to run unopposed after Tarkanian decided to try for a House seat instead.
And in West Virginia, Trump and McConnell teamed up to elbow ex-coal baron Don Blankenship, who had spent a year in prison for violating federal safety standards at a mine, out of winning a three-way GOP primary.
Just before the May 8 primary there, Trump tweeted to his millions of followers that Blankenship could not win the general election and to vote instead for Evan Jenkins or Patrick Morrisey, the party’s eventual nominee — a move cooked up by Trump and McConnell in a private phone conversation the day before. (Nonetheless, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III is favored to win reelection.)
Trump and McConnell also fended off potential primary challenges to GOP Sens. Deb Fischer (Neb.), John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) — solidly conservative lawmakers who nonetheless faced a threat from the right last year under an approach advocated by Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Instead of taking the Bannon route, Trump swiftly endorsed the sitting senators.
“What was last year a contentious relationship between the president and the leader,” said Steven Law, another former McConnell chief of staff who leads the super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, “has now become one of total cooperation, especially as it pertains to the execution of the political plan.”
McConnell’s biggest challenge on Tuesday is a collection of well-financed Democratic Senate candidates who have fought and won tough races in their conservative-leaning states. He is also contending with an enthusiastic Democratic base revved up over health care as Republicans struggle to answer for their repeated attempts to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act and its core protection for Americans with preexisting medical conditions.
“By working to gut preexisting conditions coverage, driving up the deficit with a corporate tax handout, and then threatening Social Security and Medicare, Mitch McConnell made sure Democrats had plenty to run on and helped us put Republicans on defense,” said Lauren Passalacqua, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, Republicans are favored to keep the Senate majority and perhaps boost their 51-to-49 advantage. Even if the GOP loses the House, keeping the Senate majority would allow McConnell and Trump to not only be a firewall against House Democrats but to finish McConnell’s top priority.
“If we can hold the Senate,” McConnell said at a Heritage Foundation speech last month, “I assure you we will complete the job of transforming the federal judiciary.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.