As Trump and McConnell feud over GOP's future, Republican candidates tread lightly

WASHINGTON – The most intense political contest of 2022 might be one that's not on any ballot: Donald Trump versus Mitch McConnell.

Trump hasn't been shy about ripping into McConnell and has made no secret of his desire to see Republicans demote the Senate minority leader.

McConnell, meanwhile, is refusing to talk about Trump's impact on the election at all, a pointed omission considering a slew of endorsements by the former president.

Their extended feud now threatens to stoke bruising primary fights ahead of the midterms, potentially leaving Republicans candidates weakened for the general elections and undermining GOP efforts to retake the Senate.

All that leaves many Republican candidates, especially for the Senate, trying to avoid picking a side, stepping carefully among a series of potential political landmines, analysts say.

It generally doesn't help candidates to get between two party leaders, and many Republicans fear open warfare will lead to the nomination of too-Trumpy extremists who would lose general elections to Democrats.

"I'm sure McConnell is concerned that we might nominate – in what should be a good year for Republicans – candidates who will lose the election," said Republican strategist Doug Heye. "McConnell is very aware of this and he clearly wants to avoid it; Donald Trump doesn't care about it."

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Trump versus McConnell: Alaska, Alabama, Missouri, Arizona

Trump's volatility makes some Republicans wonder if they can keep the lid on the divisive dispute with McConnell.

Already, the Trump-McConnell schism is affecting at least one Senate race and could infiltrate states like Missouri and Arizona and perhaps more.

Trump and McConnell had a tense relationship throughout Trump's presidency, one that exploded publicly after McConnell asserted that Trump incited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (McConnell later voted to acquit Trump of impeachment charges stemming from Jan. 6.)

While Donald Trump was in office, he and Republican leader Mitch McConnell were allies for the most part. After election losses, the Capitol riot and the former president's impeachment, their relationship has soured.

In the year since, Trump has periodically attacked McConnell as "gutless," "stupid," a "broke old crow" and "a loser." He has said Republicans should look for a new Senate leader, starting with the mid-term elections this November.

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In Alaska, a McConnell-backed political action committee, the Senate Leadership Fund, is supporting incumbent senator and Trump critic Lisa Murkowski. Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to campaign against Murkowski, one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump of the Jan. 6 impeachment charges over the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka says she would oppose McConnell's continuation as party leader. Tshibaka claimed McConnell has “repeatedly bailed out Joe Biden, giving him gifts of Senate votes," such as the agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who has Trump's endorsement in a competitive Senate primary in Alabama, told a radio show this week that "there's going to be significant resistance to Mitch McConnell being the Republican leader of the United States Senate."

A similar dynamic could emerge in a Republican primary in Missouri.

Former Gov. Eric  Greitens, who is vying for Trump's endorsement, has said he too would oppose McConnell's re-election as Senate leader.

McConnell has not ruled out getting his political action committee involved in that primary. One potential reason: Greitens is the former Missouri governor who resigned in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and blackmail, allegations he denied.

Earlier this year, McConnell told reporters his organization would get involved in primaries if it looked like Republicans are “on the verge of nominating somebody who is unelectable.”

The Senate race in Arizona is another potential source of friction between McConnell and Trump.

McConnell has called Gov. Doug Ducey an "ideal" Senate candidate.  Ducey has not expressed interest in a Senate race, but the mere prospect inspired one of Trump's most vitriolic attacks on McConnell, saying the governor "is being pushed by Old Crow Mitch McConnell ... He will never have my endorsement or the support of MAGA Nation!"

Avoiding the subject

Amid these flareups, McConnell has been careful not to attack Trump publicly.

The parade of Republican candidates who have met with McConnell this election season includes many whom Trump has endorsed, such as Herschel Walker of Georgia. McConnell has endorsed Walker for the Senate GOP nomination in Georgia, despite the former football star's total lack of experience in politics and allegations of domestic violence.

In Pennsylvania, site of a potentially divisive Senate Republican primary, GOP rivals Oz Mehmet and David McCormick have already argued about qualifications and China policy, but not about Trump and McConnell.

One state over in Ohio, Republican candidates like Josh Mandel, J.D. Vance and Jane Timkin are vying to be the "Trumpiest" candidate in the race, analysts said – but they have consistently refused to attack McConnell or be drawn into the dispute involving Trump.

So far.

David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron, questioned whether that would last. With so many candidates "trying to prove their loyalty to Trump," Cohen said it wouldn't surprise anybody to see one or more of them go after McConnell.

"I think it's just a matter of timing," Cohen said.

Therein lies a Republican problem, Cohen said: The more Trump-like a nominee, the harder it may be in a general election in a toss-up state like Ohio. The likely Democratic nominee in the Buckeye State, Rep. Tim Ryan, is already appealing to independent voters and "Never Trump" Republicans who don't like either the ex-president or McConnell.

"Ohioans as a whole tend to be a little more centrist than the Ohio Republican Party is currently," Cohen said.

McConnell avoids the subject  

Republican strategists like Scott Jennings said it only makes sense for candidates to want to support from both an ex-president and the party's top Senate leader – and for those same candidates to avoid getting in the middle of a fight between two powerful players.

Jennings, who hails from McConnell's home state of Kentucky, said Democrats and the media are trying to exploit the Trump-McConnell feud to sow divisions among the Republicans.

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Certainly, McConnell is avoiding talking about Trump – at least directly.

When a reporter asked McConnell about Trump's comments that he would consider pardons for Jan. 6 rioters, the Republican leader did not mention Trump by name but criticized the rioters: "What we saw here on January the 6th was an effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another, which had never happened before in our country."

McConnell also said "the election of 2020 was decided December the 14th of 2020 when the Electoral College certified the winner of the election" – the exact opposite of Trump's continued false claims that Biden did not legitimately win the election. Trump is urging his 2022 candidates to back his false claims that the election was somehow stolen.

Republican nightmare

Trump hasn't been so reticent.

As far back as last February, just a month after leaving office, Trump said the Republican Party cannot recover with McConnell at the helm: "Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again."

As the Trump factor hovers over 2022, some Republicans are haunted by the specter of elections past.

In the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, for example, the Republicans lost four winnable Senate races because voters regarded their nominees as too extreme: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010; Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012.

Republicans fear something similar in 2022 – in a cycle in which every race counts as the GOP and Democrats vie for control of the Senate.

The current Senate is split 50-50; Democrats control the agenda because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Has Trump already won the GOP battle? 

Some Republicans said they don't expect the Senate elections to turn into a Trump-McConnell proxy battle for a simple reason: Trump has already won the war and is controlling the party.

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and a "Never Trumper" who is conducting focus groups of voters, said McConnell and his aides are only sending signals that he is prepared to resist some Trump candidates.

Yet there's "no evidence McConnell is doing anything to get in Trump's way" beyond his involvement in Alaska, Longwell said. She cited McConnell's endorsement of Walker in Georgia, a Trump protege whom she described as "a manifestly unqualified candidate."

"Trump is in the driver's seat," Longwell said. "Mitch McConnell  is going to try to stay out of his way."