On Monday, President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House. One reporter asked about Steve Bannon’s plan to primary Republican senators. McConnell responded:
LEADER MCCONNELL: Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November. Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates — Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They’re not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election.
My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home. We changed the business model in 2014; we nominated people who could win everywhere. We took the majority in the Senate. We had one skirmish in 2016; we kept the majority in the Senate. So our operating approach will be to support our incumbents and, in open seats, to seek to help nominate people who can actually win in November. That’s my approach and that’s the way you keep a governing majority.
On the one hand, that’s absolutely true. Having “better” or “more conservative” nominees doesn’t mean much if they all lose in the general election. But has the McConnell-led establishment really done such a good job of weighing in on Republican primaries? They always like to bring up Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock, who defeated more establishment opponents in early contests. But they leave out a lot of other information.
For one thing, McConnell-preferred party contest winners such as Connie Mack in Florida, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, and Rick Berg in North Dakota are also not in the Senate. It’s disingenuous to pretend that only Tea Party enthusiasts lost races in 2010 or 2012.
For another thing, there are plenty of senators McConnell opposed who made it to the Senate despite his best efforts. As it happens, these are some of the most conservative men in the Senate. McConnell strenuously fought some of these candidates, including Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Ben Sasse. Had the establishment been more open to the base of the party, they would be in a much better situation now.
Imagine, if you would, a prayer breakfast in Washington attended by the leadership of the GOP — Messrs. Boehner, McConnell, Priebus, and their associates. They drop to their knees, bow their heads, and invoke divine intercession in the country’s troubled affairs, and in the party’s parlous condition. Would it be too much to ask Him to deliver unto them a mass political movement, self-financed and benignly led, God-fearing and well-mannered, almost all of whose members believed in the literal version of the Republican platform and almost none of whose members wanted anything from the federal government but constitutional restraint?
Yes, it would have been too much to ask, but, yes, it has been given unto them, anyway. The Tea Party arrived in vast, friendly numbers and said to the GOP, ‘We’re not from the federal government and we’re here to help.’
What happened next was not pretty. Or smart. The GOP brass responded with insults, attack ads, collaborative media trashing, and, finally, over the past six months, the charge of McConnell’s geezer brigade seeking to ‘crush’ the Tea Party. And here we thought congressional Republicans were too prone to compromise, too quick to split the difference.
This brings us to the Alabama race that Team McConnell just butchered. McConnell invested heavily in the primary. He backed Luther Strange, a D.C. lobbyist who was a bit too close to the corrupt former governor Robert Bentley. Bentley resigned in April, after pleading guilty to charges related to his attempted coverup of his betrayal of his wife. Bentley had placed Strange in the seat following Sen. Jeff Sessions’ move to attorney general.
But voters had had enough of Bentley’s corruption, and weren’t altogether keen on an establishment-friendly lobbyist such as Strange. Strange and Roy Moore made it out of the primary to a runoff, and Moore handily beat Strange. McConnell’s best move on behalf of Strange was to get President Trump’s endorsement of him. That effectively blocked the most viable conservative candidate, named Mo Brooks. Here’s who McConnell worked to oust, on the theory that Moore was easier for the establishment lobbyist to defeat, immediately after being shot at by a progressive activist in June:
Not with respect to the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment right to bear arms is to help ensure that we always have a republic. And as with any constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people. And what we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly.
But we’re not going to get rid of freedom of speech because some people say some really ugly things that hurt other people’s feelings. We’re not going to get rid of the Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights because it allows some criminals to go free who should be behind bars. These rights are there to protect Americans, and while each of them has a negative aspect to them, they are fundamental to our being the greatest nation in world history.
So, no, I’m not changing my position on any of the rights that we enjoy as Americans.
So instead of Brooks, a principled conservative with a good track record in the House of Representatives, McConnell backed the tainted incumbent-of-a-few-months, inadvertently helping Moore get the nomination.
All of this to say that McConnell is not wrong about parties helping get electable people nominated, but they better be smarter about how they do it. They need to understand the frustration that the base feels and stop trying to ignore or squash it. How many more examples do they need to figure out the strategy could be wiser?