A tamer Trump? McConnell confident GOP can retake Senate with 'restrained' former president

  • Trump and McConnell haven't been on good terms since McConnell blamed him for the Jan. 6 insurrection.
  • Republicans need to flip just one seat in the fall midterms to win control of the Senate.
  • Political forecasters say most of the races considered toss-ups are in Democratic-held seats.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky - If Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is worried about former President Donald Trump meddling in the 2022 midterm elections, he hid it well beneath his notorious stoicism in a recent USA TODAY interview.

Many political observers argue Trump cost the GOP its Senate majority leading up to the January 2021 runoff races in Georgia when he regularly made false assertions about the state's election integrity that reportedly hurt turnout among conservative voters.

Asked if the former president could once again jeopardize the GOP chances in retaking the chamber this year, the Kentucky Republican now sees a much tamer Trump.

"So far this cycle, he's been rather restrained in his nominations," McConnell told USA TODAY in a one-on-one interview. 

"So I don't see it as a problem. Obviously, it's important to him to win and so he's been rather cautious with his primary endorsements in most of our races, and I think that's because he doesn't want to show up with somebody who doesn't actually prevail in the primary."

The Senate has a 50-50 split with Democrats owning the tie-break vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, which means Republicans need to flip just one seat in the fall midterms to win control of the chamber.

McConnell exudes confidence at the possibility of being Senate majority leader next year and believes the current environment and midterm election history are leaning in the GOP's favor.

"Obviously, the atmosphere could not be better," he said. "I think it is (an) overwhelming likelihood the wind will be at our back, and that's obviously very important."

"But," the GOP leader warned, "you have to have candidates who can win."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talk on the escalator as senators gather for a briefing on the war in Ukraine, in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

Most of the races political forecasters say are leaning or toss-up states, however, are in Democratic-held seats. Democrats aren't helped by President Joe Biden, whose job approval ratings have plunged to among the lowest level of his presidency around 40 percent, according to an NBC News poll released March 27

Other surveys find Americans continue to have high levels of anxiety over a 40-year high in inflation and record spikes in gas prices.

Why candidates matter to McConnell

McConnell's optimism does have a catch, however.

In the past he has seen possible majorities slip through his hands when Republicans were favored.

The GOP leader specifically remembered failed attempts to seize the Senate majority in 2010 and 2012, and cites primaries that elevated poor contenders, such as Christie O'Donnell in Delaware; Richard Mourdock in Indiana; Sharron Angle in Nevada and the late Todd Akin in Missouri.

Learn more:The field for Kentucky's primary election is set. Here are 5 takeaways and races to watch

Those losses, and others, kept control of the Senate out of McConnell's hands until 2014, which had major consequences during former President Barack Obama's last term and through the Trump presidency.

"So we have to make sure that we nominate electable candidates," McConnell said. "And so far, I think, in our primaries it looks like that's going to be the case."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

That's why McConnell and his allies made aggressive efforts to woo popular Republicans governors, such as Maryland's Larry Hogan and Arizona's Doug Ducey, to run for their respective Senate races.

Those potential candidates spurned McConnell's advances, however.

Who has the better 2022 map? 

Of the 35 Senate seats up for reelection this year, Republicans hold 21, but organizations that forecast elections point out the more competitive races are in Democratic hands.

Sabato's Crystal Ball, at the UVa Center for Politics, for instance, rates four Senate contests as toss-ups Of those, three – Arizona, Georgia and Nevada – currently belong to the Democrats.

Over at The Cook Political Report, there are five toss-up Senate races listed for this fall, and the report rates the same three Democratic seats as competitive.

Georgia 2022:Georgia redistricting forces voters into tough choice between two Democratic incumbents

But Republicans have retirements putting them on defense in the important battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., leaves after a Senate Republican luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. His retirement leaves a key Senate seat open in this year's midterms.

Democrats have especially found themselves fighting negative perceptions about the economy.

A poll released by Navigator Research in February, for instance, found 37 percent of Americans believed more jobs had been lost since 2021.

Yet under Biden, the U.S. unemployment has been cut from 6.4 percent when he took office to 3.6 percent this month after adding another 431,000 jobs in March. 

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Even McConnell acknowledges there is an opportunity for Democrats to seize the narrative and hold the Senate.

"What I mean by that is the Senate, unlike the House, every one of our races that are in play this year are states that could go either way in November," McConnell said. "In other words, they're competitive in the general election."

McConnell: Don't say dumb things

Earlier this year, McConnell told reporters he would get involved in primaries if it looked like Republicans were "on the verge of nominating somebody who is unelectable."

The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC, has the resources to do such. It boasted at the beginning of the year how it had raked in $94.4 million along with its allied nonprofit advocacy group One Nation during last year's fundraising.

McConnell told USA TODAY what makes someone a "winnable" candidate in November depends on each state and the polling data.

"It depends on not doing and saying foolish things that disqualify you," McConnell said. "And frankly, I don't think it has to do with President Trump. I don't personally care whether they are Trump supporters or Trump opponents."

Much has been written, however, about the McConnell-Trump rift leading up to the 2022 contests. The two haven't been on good terms since the Kentucky Republican publicly blamed the former president for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Former President Donald Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell

Since then, Trump has repeatedly called for McConnell to be replaced as the Senate GOP leader and regularly derides him as the "old crow" in public statements.

2022 midterm elections:The most interesting Senate races to watch, from Georgia, to Pennsylvania and Florida

McConnell has tried to avoid taking any direct jabs at Trump – although his campaign's Twitter accounted changed its profile picture to a bottle of Old Crow whiskey in jest.

On the political front, however, the two either were or remain at odds in a handful of GOP contests, such as in Alaska, where Trump-backed candidate Kelly Tshibaka is challenging incumbent Lisa Murkowski.

"As Alaska’s next U.S. Senator, I will not support Mitch McConnell as leader," Tshibaka said in a tweet last December, adding how the GOP leader has "repeatedly bailed out Joe Biden, giving him gifts of Senate votes."

McConnell's super PAC has thrown its support behind Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump of Jan. 6-related impeachment charges. But Alaska is considered a safe Republican Senate seat in 2022, which most forecasters say Democrats have no chance of winning.

Speculation of lingering animosity between McConnell and Trump seems to also be dying down as Trump-aligned contenders have either faced withering controversies or the two sides have seemingly reconciled. 

Both men, for instance, are supporting former NFL star Herschel Walker in his bid to be Georgia's next senator.

"Thank you Leader McConnell for your endorsement," Walker said in a tweet last October. "As I have said from the beginning, I am laser focused on bringing people together to win this seat back for Georgia and for America."

Alabama, another state viewed as a safe GOP seat this November, saw Trump rescind his endorsement of Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, a Senate hopeful who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally.

Brooks had proudly pledged he would help "fire McConnell" as majority leader if elected, and released a statement blaming the GOP leader for Trump's decision to pull his backing.

McConnell chuckled when asked about the fallout.

"(Brooks) is the only one who has brought me up," McConnell said. "All the rest of them have passed on the opportunity to make me an issue in the race."