Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican colleagues in Washington have largely rallied to his defense amid President Donald Trump’s attacks, some 2018 GOP Senate candidates are hesitant to back the Kentucky Republican.
An informal survey of more than half a dozen Republican candidates in key states such as Montana and Arizona revealed lukewarm support for McConnell to continue as majority leader if Republicans control the Senate after next year’s midterms. Many candidates said they would either want someone else to be their leader, or declined to answer whether or not they would back McConnell remaining in the job.
The responses varied among different types of candidates, with top party recruits backing McConnell and more long-shot candidates aligning themselves with President Donald Trump’s criticism of the Senate leader this week.
Speaking at the Rotary Club in Florence, Kentucky on Monday, McConnell attributed Republicans’ stalled agenda to "excessive expectations" and artificial deadlines from the White House.
Trump has since fired away at McConnell while vacationing at his golf club in New Jersey.
“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?” Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Then on Thursday, Trump declined to endorse McConnell to remain majority leader.
"If he doesn’t get repeal and replace done, if he doesn’t get taxes done — meaning cuts and reform — and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure — if he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question,” Trump said.
Some Republican hopefuls positioning themselves as outsiders running against the Washington establishment echoed Trump’s criticism of McConnell.
“I believe that the best way for Senator McConnell to try to retain his leadership position long term is to find a way to move the President’s policy agenda forward in the Senate,” said Kelli Ward when asked about whether she would vote for McConnell to stay on. Ward is challenging Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in a primary.
Flake’s vocal criticism of Trump has angered the president and his allies, who have threatened to campaign to unseat the incumbent by backing a primary opponent.
Ward wasn’t the only primary challenger to be skeptical of McConnell. Long-shot Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian, who announced earlier this week that he would challenge Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), also sided with Trump in his spat with McConnell. "Of course I support the president,” Tarkanian told Fox Business on Thursday.
In Montana, where Republicans are looking to unseat Democratic incumbent Jon Tester, Republican candidate Al Olszewski, a state senator, said he would not vote for McConnell to stay on as leader if he’s elected.
“He is very disappointed that the last Senate health care reform legislation was created behind closed doors with few people, and did not get vetted through committee hearings and regular order,” a campaign coordinator for Olszewski said.
Olszewski’s primary opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, would support McConnell. A spokesperson for Rosendale said the Republican leader’s status “is not in question.”
In Missouri, one of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill challengers, producer and political activist Austin Peterson, said he would not support McConnell. Another Republican hopeful, Tony Monetti, an assistant dean at the University of Central Missouri, declined to comment.
In West Virginia, where Republicans are vying to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) supports McConnell staying on as leader. But one of his opponents, laid-off coal miner Bo Copley, declined to say whether or not he would back McConnell.
Several GOP candidates in other states also declined to weigh in.
“I’d really have to evaluate things on the ground, see who’s even running for the position,” Eric Brakey, a Republican state senator from Maine running against Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said in an interview. “I’m focused on my race.”
In Pennsylvania, Berwick Borough Council member Andrew Shecktor said McConnell should not only step down as leader, but leave the Senate altogether. Shecktor is a long-shot candidate who is running to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey.
"I feel Mitch McConnell is well overdue not only to step down as Senate Majority Leader, but to leave the Senate and open the spot for a new candidate with fresh ideas," Shecktor said in an email.
Alabama’s special Senate election primary next week, GOP Rep. Mo Brooks has publicly voiced his frustrations with McConnell. Those only grew after Trump endorsed Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Attorney General Jeff Session’s Senate seat. Brooks said earlier this week he would not vote for the Kentucky Republican to stay on as majority leader.
In a new ad released on Thursday, Brooks lauded Trump’s attacks on McConnell.
“McConnell and Strange are weak, but together we can be strong,” Brooks says in the ad. “Mr. President, isn’t it time we tell McConnell and Strange ‘you’re fired?’”