One of Mitch McConnell’s toughest tasks is the daily head count he conducts of his 50-member caucus. With the thinnest Senate majority since 2001, even a single absence could bring embarrassment on the Senate floor.
He’s had a few conspicuous flops — topped by the Obamacare repeal effort last year — but overall McConnell has managed to hold the line for President Donald Trump and the GOP agenda. It’s testament to how the canny Republican leader has remained in charge for so long, and how he’ll be remembered in the annals of Senate history.
On June 12, McConnell will surpass the 11-plus-year run of former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas to become the longest-serving Republican Senate leader ever. It’s a remarkable feat given the turmoil in the Republican Party since Trump’s takeover: The House GOP will soon be on its third party leader in little more than three years, while the lower rungs of Senate leadership are about to experience significant turnover. McConnell is on his third president as Republican leader.
Yet the 76-year-old Kentuckian is showing no signs of fading away as he steers a 51-seat majority (minus, for now, John McCain) past Dole’s mark. McConnell is serious about running for reelection in 2020, and his colleagues and allies say he’s intent on running for GOP leader again next Congress, regardless of whether Republicans hold the Senate or not.
And, as with the past six leadership elections, McConnell is expected to face no opposition if and when he pursues years 13 and 14 as GOP leader.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve enjoyed the confidence of my members,” McConnell said in an interview. “And I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been reelected without opposition.”
Despite all the barbs thrown his way over the years by the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), McConnell has never faced a serious leadership challenge. His top lieutenant, John Cornyn of Texas, is waiting in the wings to succeed McConnell, but the famously mum GOP leader has given his party whip “no timeline” on when exactly that might happen — and Cornyn won't challenge him in the interim.
“The call’s going to be up to him,” Cornyn said. “But one of the things that motivates me to run for reelection is the possibility that I’ll have that chance.”
If McConnell can win another term and more leadership races, he could close in on former Sen. Mike Mansfield’s (D-Mont.) mark of 16 years as party leader, the record for longevity in both parties. It will require McConnell to stay in good health and in good standing in a party that very well may be relegated to the minority this year or in 2020.
“He’s in a job he’s made for and meant for,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, who ran McConnell’s first Senate campaign in 1984 and went on to be his first chief of staff. “He has every intention of running again and remaining leader just as long as his colleagues will elect him.”
“There’s a reason Mitch is the longest-serving Republican leader: He understands and well-represents his caucus,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “He knows how to fight, and he knows how to cooperate.”
Unlike outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), McConnell is not a visionary ideological leader intent on bending the Congress to his will. Instead, McConnell relies on grinding out results to keep his party moving forward: confirmations of nominees, spending deals and political meddling in individual Senate races aimed at keeping Republicans in power.
He’ll work out nomination deals with Schumer that get little attention but achieve far more than keeping the Senate in session continuously just to steamroll Democrats.
“The two best qualities to have in this job is to have a thick hide and to be a good listener, because what I’m always doing is trying to get as much consensus as I can and try to achieve as much as what we can,” McConnell says of his mind-set. “Those who prefer perfection typically are people on the outside who are always thinking, unlike Ronald Reagan, that 80 percent is not enough.”
He also takes what he calls a lot of “slings and arrows” behind closed doors from griping senators, confrontations usually concealed from the public.
“He demonstrates a lot of patience because several times a day he has to suffer several indignities … that would cause most people to explode,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), McConnell’s closest ally in the Senate.
The Kentucky Republican has kept his job by occasionally showing enough flexibility to cut deals with Democrats, while also taking direction from the base of his party. When the base wanted Republicans to antagonize President Barack Obama, McConnell played the lead role. Then, once blocking and tackling for Trump became the GOP’s priority, McConnell adapted similarly.
“We’ve been on defense, we’ve been on offense,” McConnell said. “What I’ve tried to do is to keep a steady hand and stay calm in the storm, and so I never get too high or too low.”
McConnell’s aggressive procedural tactics belie his reserved personality. As minority leader, he revolutionized the use of the filibuster to frustrate his foes, so much so that his former rival Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) killed the supermajority requirement for most nominations.
Then once he was in the majority and Trump became president, McConnell used Reid’s own rule change against Democrats to jam through Trump’s Cabinet nominees, some of whom surely would have been blocked under the Senate’s old 60-vote requirement. McConnell also blocked Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat, then promptly changed the Senate rules further to install Trump’s nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Democrats are still smarting from the judicial whiplash McConnell has caused the past four years.
“I have grudging respect for his success,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “But, unfortunately, it has been to the detriment of the American people. That’s just my view.”
Those who no longer have to work with him on a daily basis are harsher.
“Mitch McConnell will be remembered for sapping his party of principles, abetting foreign interference in our elections and introducing establishment-approved, disloyal opposition to the American system,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to Reid.
All along, McConnell has shrugged off the criticism that he was damaging democracy, nullifying an election and setting up Republicans for harsh retaliation from Democrats when they eventually retake power.
He’s “thinking about the moves that need to be made to move our conference forward many, many steps in advance,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who caused McConnell headaches with her opposition to Obamacare repeal. “And I don’t think he lets himself be distracted by these short-term or these daily interferences that distract from that longer view.”
These days, McConnell finds himself juggling both. One missing senator can leave his party reeling. In April, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) realized that Vice President Mike Pence was out of town and unable to break a tie, so Flake briefly opposed NASA administrator nominee Jim Bridenstine to gain leverage for his views on Cuba.
The administrator was confirmed, but Flake’s move was a reminder that on many days, one squeaky wheel can be enough to derail McConnell’s plans. Asked how he deals with his slim majority, McConnell held two fingers together to demonstrate how infinitesimally small his margins are and conceded that “the attendance check every day is a challenge.”
After the Obamacare repeal disaster, and with Trump occasionally blasting the GOP Senate for not moving fast enough, Republicans are glad that McConnell is still willing to do that daily head-count to keep his party on course.
“I wouldn’t want that job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “So I’m glad he does.”