Remember last month when we oohed and ahhed at the fact that he was polling at 27/44 among Republicans? In hindsight that may have been a relative golden age for McConnell’s numbers.
To put this in perspective, Vladimir Putin’s favorable rating among Trump voters in this same PPP survey is 20/59. An “approval rating” technically isn’t the same as a “favorable rating,” as the latter measures pure popularity while the former measures job performance. But is it probably safe to say that Putin’s about as popular as the Senate majority leader is right now with people who voted for the president last year?
Yeah. That seems safe to say.
Paul Ryan’s approval is dismal too but it’s night and day compared to McConnell’s. He’s at 39/40 among Trump voters, poor numbers in a vacuum but downright robust relative to his Senate counterpart’s. The difference, obviously, is that the Senate’s been the graveyard for ObamaCare repeal. Ryan got the AHCA through the House but McConnell’s been stymied on three tries at getting a Senate bill. Ryan’s also managed to keep his head down while McConnell absorbs Trump’s wrath on Twitter and elsewhere, taking heat for not nuking the filibuster and for perceived weakness in not strong-arming Senate Republicans into producing 50 votes for a health-care bill. Given Ryan’s history as a lightning rod for the populist right, it’s amazing how quickly and completely McConnell has overtaken him as the RINO-in-chief. Steve Bannon, who once privately called Ryan the enemy and vowed to oust him as Speaker, is now all-in on McConnell as his main nemesis instead: “We’re gonna make him so toxic. We’re basically gonna tell people: If McConnell endorses you, you’re finished … that’s gonna put the fear of God in everybody,” he told Politico. It worked in Alabama. Senate paralysis plus feuding with Trump makes for an irresistible establishmentarian target.
A stark paragraph from a memo about the Alabama Senate runoff written by the head of McConnell’s Super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund:
Obama’s gone, Hillary’s a loser, and the most recent news about Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi is that Trump seems to like both and is eager to make a deal with them on DREAMers. Someone needs to be a villain to explain why Trump’s agenda is jammed up. Is it McConnell’s fault that he has a two-vote margin of error and three-vote clusters of centrists (Collins, Murkowski, McCain) and conservatives (Paul, Cruz, Lee) who can’t seem to agree on domestic policy? No. But he’s the leader, and when an institution breaks down, the buck stops there.
More than that, though, McConnell’s the main stumbling block to a more populist Senate caucus. His Super PAC dumped nearly $9 million into the Alabama runoff to try to take out Roy Moore. Doubtless it’ll spend many millions more attempting to blow up other insurgents in primaries next spring. McConnell gambled big in betting on Luther Strange, knowing that his antagonism to the right’s preferred candidate would earn him their hatred and calculating that it’d be worth taking that risk *if* it paid off in a Strange victory. But it didn’t. He got the worst of all worlds, boogeyman status on the right and a failed effort to discourage populists from challenging incumbents in the 2018 primaries. Erick Erickson argues the best thing he could do now would be to step down:
McConnell has long maintained that his position is secure as long as he can keep a majority of Senate Republicans happy; that he can ignore complaints from the base and conservative angst. So conservatives set out to change the playing field. In 2010, while McConnell put resources behind moderate Charlie Crist’s Senate campaign, conservatives backed Marco Rubio. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also spent money trying to stop Ken Buck in Colorado’s Republican primary. When that failed, the committee spent more helping Carly Fiorina in California than it did helping Buck in Colorado. Buck came quite close to winning. In 2012 and 2014, the establishment Republicans figured out how to fight back against conservative upstarts, successfully winning most primary challenges. McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund showered establishment-friendly moderates with cash and launched preemptive attacks on conservative candidates to define them negatively…
So on Tuesday, Trump’s supporters likely delivered to the Senate a man Trump publicly opposed but that his voters believe he privately wants or, at least, needs. Their motivation had far more to do with ending McConnell’s tenure as Senate Republican leader than passing any specific piece of legislation. Now conservatives will go find more candidates whose campaign pitch is anti-McConnell, not pro-Trump. The primary challenges will continue, with new proof that they can succeed, until the base concludes McConnell has either become helpful or gotten out of the way. This is the beginning, not the end.
Nothing’s going to change with John Cornyn or John Thune as majority leader. On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe the Senate will see more paralysis, not less, if and when a third cluster of populist/Trumpist senators joins the moderates and the conservatives there. If the GOP can’t add to its Senate margin next fall but instead ends up replacing a few incumbents like Jeff Flake with Trump loyalists like Kelli Ward, potentially you’ll have scenarios where populists can block legislation even when moderates and conservatives are on the same page. Steve Bannon loves that idea, I’m sure, as gridlock can be used as further evidence that McConnell or Cornyn or whoever the establishment scapegoat du jour happens to be is continuing to thwart the will of the people. Whether less populist Republicans will love it, eh.
Here’s Paul Ryan reminding voters a few days ago that it’s the other chamber, not his chamber, that’s been such a thorn in Trump’s side.