Politics & Government

McConnell strengthens his political grip on GOP Senate campaigns

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley kicks off his campaign to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate last week.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley kicks off his campaign to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate last week. AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will headline a fundraiser for Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a Senate candidate who hasn’t backed the Kentucky Republican for leader.

Still, the fundraiser for Hawley, the Missouri attorney general, is the latest evidence of an improved political scenario for McConnell's efforts to keep GOP control of the Senate in November.

Hawley had courted the support of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who threatened to wage war on McConnell and establishment Republicans.

But Bannon's ouster from the Trump White House has dimmed his appeal and last week two Bannon-backed candidates switched races to avoid GOP Senate primaries — and what could have been contentious contests for Republicans.

In Nevada, Republican Danny Tarkanian announced he would drop his primary challenge to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, and instead run for a House seat.

In Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel switched Senate races to run for an open seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Bannon's candidates could have posed headaches for McConnell, who operates the Senate with a slim 51 to 49 majority. In October 2017, not long after he announced he would run for Senate, Hawley refused to commit to voting for McConnell as Senate Republican leader if elected.

Hawley did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

When asked directly in October whether his boss would support McConnell, Hawley's campaign spokesman deflected the question in a statement that did not mention McConnell by name, but criticized the Senate McConnell leads as "broken and failing" the people of Missouri.

“Josh is running because he is not willing to tolerate the failure of the D.C. establishment any longer,” Hawley's spokesman, Scott Paradise, said in the statement at the time. “He won’t tolerate Claire McCaskill’s failure. And he won’t tolerate Republican failure, either.”

He told The Washington Post earlier this month that he would not commit to voting for anyone as leader.

“I think it’s a little premature to say who I would and wouldn’t vote for. I’m not committed to voting for anybody for any leadership position,” Hawley told the Post in an article published March 9.

Yet if there were any hard feelings, McConnell is not letting them get in the way of his efforts to retain his majority. The reception's powerful hosts indicate the importance Republican leaders in Washington place on Hawley and his efforts to unseat Missouri's Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, widely considered one of the most at-risk Senate Democrats in November.

At least twice in the past week, McConnell has used his time on the Senate floor to swipe at McCaskill for not backing the Republican tax bill that Trump signed into law in December. No Senate Democrat voted for the legislation, but McConnell has recently singled out only McCaskill.

McConnell used Trump's trip to St. Louis last Wednesday to tout the tax bill to charge that "Missouri's senior senator tried to block tax reform on a party-line vote. Fortunately, there was a Republican senator who voted to help them realize this possibility."

The reception in Washington D.C. will be held on Wednesday, a week after President Donald Trump headlined an event to raise money for Hawley's Senate run, according to an invitation obtained by The Kansas City Star.

The reception's powerful hosts indicate the importance Republican leaders in Washington place on Hawley and his efforts to unseat Missouri's Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, widely considered one of the most at-risk Senate Democrats in November.

In addition to Blunt and McConnell, other hosts of the fundraiser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. are listed as Majority Whip John Cornyn, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Republican conference chairman, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who serves as Republican Policy Committee chairman, and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the NRSC. Blunt is vice-chairman of the GOP conference.

Attendees are asked to donate $1,000 or $500 to Hawley. Hosts are expected to give $2,500 from political action committees or $1,000 personal contributions. The invitation also indicates private dinners can be organized following the event.

McConnell is aggressively looking to topple McCaskill in November.

He took another rhetorical Senate floor swing at the Missouri Democrat on Monday, raising Trump's trip to St. Louis and his meeting with a woman who works in a cafeteria to again criticize McCaskill for her party-line vote.

"When Democratic leaders called these historic middle class tax cuts crumbs, the senior senator from Missouri followed suit and called them scraps," McConnell said. Republicans, he added, including Blunt, “stood up for the middle class families who deserve to keep more of their own money."

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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