Analysts and pundits are finally picking up on the fact that the supposed red wave of 2022 was much more of a red mirage all along. The slow-but-steady downgrading of GOP prospects in November is everywhere. But nowhere is this more apparent than in the Senate, where Republican candidates are consistently underperforming and, in some cases, are downright comically bad (witness Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose political wizardry is already the stuff of legend).
It's important to note that Democrats haven't won anything yet, but it's equally important to note that Democratic chances of keeping Senate have improved dramatically from the doomsday predictions earlier this year (FiveThirtyEight's "deluxe" model—the least favorable to Dems—now gives Democrats a 72% chance of winning the Senate).
That potential loss on the heels of so much GOP hubris has produced a delightful circular firing squad among Republican leaders. Naturally, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was eager to get his version of events out early, fingering the party's dreadful "candidate quality" as the chief culprit for its faltering Senate takeover campaign.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said last month, handicapping the GOP’s midterm chances at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “Senate races are just different—they're statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Despite McConnell's stoic delivery, his downgraded prediction was an obvious swipe at Donald Trump and National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Rick Scott, who both helped saddle the GOP with a crop of candidates who are either full MAGA extremists (Arizona's Blake Masters) or entirely lackluster (Pennsylvania's Doc Oz) or both (Ohio's J.D. Vance).
But the truth is, if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had half the backbone that GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming does, he would be spending his energy rallying the troops right now for potential victory, rather than identifying scapegoats for potential defeat.
Let's review just how badly McConnell mucked up Senate Republicans and the party more broadly this cycle, starting with Donald Trump's post-insurrection impeachment trial:
- McConnell had a chance to drive a stake through Trump's political future by leading his caucus to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Once convicted, Trump would have had no path to lawfully run for a second term. But rather than leading, McConnell followed his caucus, leading to Trump's acquittal and a second bite at the presidential apple.
- McConnell packed the Supreme Court full of right-wing extremists who in no way reflect the political mainstream, nor do they care. Perhaps McConnell never imagined that they would overturn 50 years of settled abortion law so quickly and callously, or maybe he just wildly underestimated the political backlash to such a ruling. Either way, he badly miscalculated.
- After it was clear that Trump was determined to put his thumb heavily on the scales of the election cycle’s GOP primaries, McConnell played along, openly endorsing political misfits like former Georgia football star Herschel Walker—an alleged spousal abuser with violent tendencies and self-admitted psychiatric problems who has trouble articulating a coherent thought. “Herschel is the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate. I look forward to working with Herschel in Washington to get the job done,” McConnell said in a statement last fall.
- McConnell intentionally declined to lay out a platform for his caucus should they regain control of the chamber. Asked in January what Republicans would do with their majority, McConnell offered coyly, "That is a very good question. And I'll let you know when we take it back." That giant heap of hubris has cost Republicans dearly. As inflation and gas prices have begun to recede, McConnell's declination has left Republicans without a Plan B. His leadership vacuum also invited NRSC chair Rick Scott to offer up his own agenda, promising widespread tax increases for working Americans and the prospect of phasing out Social Security and Medicare. That landed like a box of rocks dropped from Scott's alien spaceship. But that's not all, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina got in the act last week with his own bit of leadership: a national 15-week abortion ban that he promised would get a vote if Republicans retook the Senate. Graham's head-scratching gambit has sent GOP Senate hopefuls scrambling for cover while prompting a dismissal from McConnell himself. "I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level," McConnell told reporters last week.
Bottom line: McConnell has repeatedly misplayed this election. He believed that he could bend the entire nation to his political will despite the fact that he and his party's views were wildly out of step with the American mainstream. After years of not paying a political price for abusing the power entrusted to him, McConnell concluded that he could get away with virtually anything—including turning the Supreme Court into a GOP-guided missile.
McConnell, the supposed master tactician, also bet that he could benefit more from Trump's continued presence in the party than he would pay for continuing to carry Trump's baggage.
If Senate Republicans fail to retake the Senate this November, McConnell will have no one to thank but himself. If he weren't so morally bankrupt, he might have had the mettle to salvage his party and field a group of competitive candidates. Instead, he's racing to put out fires, point fingers, and brace for a potentially embarrassing defeat that shuts him out from becoming the longest-serving Senate majority Leader.