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How Dems Can Exploit the GOP Civil War
A weak and distracted McConnell plus an angry Trump can be a recipe for Democratic success
Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are fighting. It’s hard to decide who to root for in this battle of dishonest political arsonists.
Donald Trump emerged from hiding on Tuesday to release a verbose, mostly incoherent statement attacking Mitch McConnell. Notably, the statement included the least dishonest of Trump’s many public utterances by referring to McConnell as a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”
Trump’s broadside was in response to a widely (and incorrectly) praised speech that McConnell gave on the Senate floor about the role Trump played in inciting the violent attack on the Capitol. McConnell’s speech was harshly critical of Trump but conspicuously absent of any mention of his role in pushing the big lie about the election.
Beyond titillating Never-Trumpers, McConnell’s speech did not go over with the rest of the party. Sean Hannity called on Republicans to remove McConnell from leadership. Senator Ron Johnson warned McConnell to get back on the Trump Train.
TheNew York Times summarized McConnell’s self-induced political pickle as such:
The strategy appeared twofold: Don’t stoke a full-on revolt by Trump supporters the party needs by voting to convict, but demonstrate to anti-Trump Republicans — particularly big donors — that he recognized Mr. Trump’s failings and is beginning to steer the party in another direction. But it did not exactly produce the desired result. Instead, it has drawn Mr. McConnell into a vicious feud with the former president, who lashed out at him on Tuesday as a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack,” and given new cause for Republican division that could spill into the midterm elections.
While Trump is a man not known for his follow-through, he has pledged to continue pushing McConnell out of his leadership perch and supporting primaries against McConnell-backed Senate candidates in 2022.
When two adversaries decide to fight each other, the usual approach is to stay out the way and enjoy the show. In this instance, I think the ongoing McConnell-Trump feud presents an opportunity for Democrats to splinter the fraying Republican coalition and strengthen our hand for 2022.
It is not a given that the opportunity before us will be there forever. Opposition to a Democratic President could unify the Republicans if we don’t act.
How Vulnerable is McConnell?
Back in the 2010 Republican Senate primary, Mitch McConnell threw all of his political weight behind Trey Grayson, the Secretary of State, and a McConnell protege. Rand Paul, a kooky ophthalmologist and son of the even kookier Congressman Ron Paul ran against Grayson. The McConnell political machine went to the mattresses for Grayson, but it didn’t matter. Paul ran against Grayson and McConnell and won by more than twenty points.
For much of the Obama years, McConnell was a punching bag for the right. The Senate Conservatives Fund, a right-wing Super PAC, targeted him during the 2014 primary. He was consistently the least popular politician in America, but mostly because Republican voters hated him.
For the last four years, McConnell was able to reach a detente with the base. McConnell deftly navigated the party’s cross-pressures without becoming a national joke (a la Kevin McCarthy, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, etc.). The Trump base came to respect McConnell for the ruthless efficiency with which he jammed the courts with unqualified Trump nominees. But now, the base is once again hostile to McConnell and all but the most MAGA Senate Republicans. The question is, does McConnell have anything to fear?
McConnell was annoyingly just reelected by a large margin in the most Republican state in the Union. There were almost no circumstances where Amy McGrath would defeat McConnell in Kentucky with Trump on the ballot. Frankly, many prominent Democrats owe people an apology for artificially inflating the prospects for victory in that race to juice the fundraising machine. Maybe, McConnell could lose a primary in 2026 (if he chooses to run again), but that is a long way off.
There is no obvious heir apparent in the Senate that could successfully oust him from his role as Republican leader. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are the Senators most in tune with the insurrectionist wing of the Republican Party, but their colleagues despise them for being overly ambitious and generally odious people. It seems unlikely that McConnell is going anywhere anytime soon. But McConnell is unquestionably weaker than he has been in a very long time. According to a Morning Consult poll conducted before Trump’s attack, McConnell’s favorable rating among Kentucky Republicans has dropped 29 points since Election Day. McConnell’s problems with the party nationally are even worse. On Election Day, 70 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably, and 13 percent viewed him unfavorably per Civiqs. Last week, it was 55 percent unfavorable and only 20 percent favorable. To put McConnell’s political standing in context, 88 percent of those very same Republicans view Trump favorably.
It is incredibly unusual for the base to hate the leader of their party, and it poses real challenges for the Republican Party going forward.
Why a Weak McConnell Matters
Trump is the spiritual leader of the Republican Party, but his power is minimal, and he is too lazy and easily distracted to wield it effectively. He can’t even tweet!
On a day-to-day basis, Mitch McConnell is the operational leader. He has two primary jobs: Stop the Biden agenda and help the Republicans retake the Senate majority. The ongoing feud with Trump and McConnell’s weakened political standing makes both much harder to accomplish.
Over the last decade, McConnell has mostly succeeded in avoiding the embarrassing mishaps of the House Republicans. Unlike Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, McConnell had the standing to pull most of his caucus back from the brink. That is no longer the case. McConnell doesn’t have the credibility with the base to push back on their worst impulses. The fact that McConnell is fighting a two-front war will make the Biden White House’s life just a bit easier.
On the campaign trail, McConnell is becoming an albatross for the candidates he backs. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson told theNew York Times:
Mr. McConnell was already emerging as a negative factor among Trump-backing Republican primary voters he speaks with back home. He said the minority leader risked becoming a full-blown pariah for Senate candidates if he did not move quickly toward unifying the party.
The Trump-McConnell battle is likely to play out in the 2022 primaries. The National Republican Senate Committee and McConnell want to push the Republican candidates who they believe are more electable than the Fox News Green Room rejects that Trump will likely back. It is generally not great when the party leader shows up in attack ads in a primary.
Finally, for the Republicans to take the Senate, they need Trump-level turnout. Will they turn out to make a man they hate the Senate Majority Leader?
To give a sense of the political problem facing Republicans, a USA Today/Suffolk poll found that 46 percent of Republicans would support a third party started by Trump. In a turnout-dependent election, this level of dissatisfaction with the party could be a huge problem for Republicans.
Shouldn’t Democrats Pick a Side?
Some argue that the responsible thing for Democrats to do is provide aid and comfort to the small handful of Republicans willing to push back against Trump. They believe that the country is better off with a Trump-skeptic leading the Senate than a full-blown MAGA maniac. I understand that line of thinking, but it has been tested and failed. Theoretical Never Trumper Paul Ryan led the House Republicans for two years, yet did less to push back on Trump than Kevin McCarthy, a man that went to lunch with Trump after the former President almost had him murdered. There is simply no evidence that it matters which Republican is in charge.
I know memories are short these days, but McConnell was the person in charge of the Senate when Trump incited a murderous mob to try to overturn the election. That fact seems like a substantial piece of evidence that McConnell is not a particularly effective bulwark.
While it is appropriate to respect Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, and others for their periodic courage, the only way to defeat Trumpsim is to defeat as many Republicans as possible as quickly as possible.
How to Do It
Pod Save America listeners / “Un-Trumping America” readers may remember my dalliance with an imaginary Super PAC. In 2019, I had many theoretical ideas for what I would do with some hypothetical cash from some non-existent billionaires. Eventually, actual SuperPACs with real money came to the rescue.
The point here is not to just beat up on McConnell for sport, although he certainly deserves that and then some. And it is not to simply drive a wedge in the Republican Party for the sake of a wedge, although that would be beneficial to the cause. The goal is to use the party’s current division to demobilize the Trump supporters who dislike McConnell to increase our chances in 2022.
If some Democratic entity were to engage on this issue, here’s what I would do:
Sow dissent in the ranks. The media, the voters, and Trump have social media-induced attention deficit disorder. Before too long, the press and the voters will move onto something else. A faux-scandal or manufactured outrage could unite the Republicans. Fox News and others in the Right Wing media could decide that beating up on Democrats and spreading racial division is better for ratings and clicks than attacking other Republicans. Therefore, a Democratic SuperPAC or other entity could run digital ads featuring Trump and different MAGA types attacking McConnell and the Republican establishment. The ads1 would target people who voted in 2016 and 2020, but not in 2018, and people who are Facebook fans of Fox, Breitbart, Dan Bongino, and other MAGA celebrities. The use of conservative messengers is critical. I would run a steady stream of ads on YouTube and Facebook with clips of McConnell, McCarthy, and other Republicans attacking Trump. The target audience is conservative by definition. Research conducted during the 2020 campaign showed that in-group messengers are the most effective way to persuade Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents.
Push the GOPinDissaray Meme: The media has been so focused on internal Democratic Party squabbles for so long that it has become a meme. Yes, the media has a habit of presuming weakness from Democrats and strength from Republicans even though Democrats keep winning more elections. But the reason you see so many stories about Democratic infighting is that the Republicans and the Right Wing press go out of their way to highlight those stories. Democratic disagreements are a frequent topic of GOP press releases, Fox segments, and Trump tweets (back when he could tweet.) Republicans understand that media perception and reality are a distinction without a difference. Democrats and progressive media should endeavor to do the same to keep the fight in the news. By doing so, we will continue to show the Republicans as weak and increase the likelihood that the combatants will continue to battle.
Plutocrats v. Populists: This is an opportunity to go directly at the ideological incoherence of the Republican coalition. The Republicans depend on the working class for votes and billionaires and corporations for money. Trump successfully papered over this problem with an amorphous policy agenda and nationalist (and racist) message. In 2016, Trump won over a crucial segment of 2012 voters who either stayed home or supported Obama because of Romney’s plutocratic policy stances.
The newfound skepticism about McConnell is an opportunity to educate working-class voters about the true Republican agenda -- corporate tax cuts paid for by cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Here is an excerpt from a 2018 Newsweek article:
After instituting a $1.5 trillion tax cut and signing off on a $675 billion budget for the Department of Defense, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the only way to lower the record-high federal deficit would be to cut entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
The vast majority of Republican voters have no idea that they are voting for politicians who want to cut their Medicare and Social Security. This fight is our opportunity to tell them. Democrats could make sure that Trump voters saw stories like the one in Newsweek by paying to put them in their Facebook feeds. Senate Democrats could exacerbate the divide with votes to protect Social Security and Medicare. We might even be able to trick Trump into attacking McConnell and others over their support for cutting Medicare and Social Security. In 2016, Trump pledged not to cut these programs, and he falsely attacked Joe Biden for proposing cuts in 2020. Because the facts are never an impediment to a Trump attack, Trump’s budget repeatedly included proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Political parties tend to unify when they are out of power. An ongoing feud between the former President and the current Senate Leader is an opportunity for the Democrats. Just imagine how Republicans and the Right Wing media would weaponize an ongoing, public fight between Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. Think about how they successfully pitted supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton against each other for years. We cannot assume that the fight will continue, and we don’t have to sit back and hope that it does.
This presumes that Facebook reinstates political advertising. If they don’t, you could run a similar play with similar targeting on other platforms.