On Wednesday evening, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did something peculiar: He tamped down expectations for the upcoming midterm election.
“We have a 50-50 Senate now,” he said during an interview with Bret Baier on Fox News. “We have a 50-50 nation. And I think when the Senate race smoke clears, we’re likely to have a very, very close Senate still, with either us up slightly or the Democrats up slightly.”
Even a few months ago, nobody would have expected McConnell to curb enthusiasm about a Republican takeover. Joe Biden’s approval numbers are still dismal, and inflation is at a 40-year high. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, still have not passed their massive social spending bill, and are defending seats in four swing states, including Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire.
All of those things are still true – but the circumstances are changing.
For one thing, Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer have stunned Washington by striking a deal on what’s now known as the Inflation Reduction Act, a scaled-down but still huge spending package that tackles climate change, health care and prescription drug costs. The Democrats’ goal is to sidestep GOP opposition by passing the bill through budget reconciliation.
This came despite McConnell offering an ultimatum: if Schumer and Manchin continued their talks on the reconciliation deal, Republicans would kill legislation meant to support the manufacturing of semiconductors in the US. Yet almost immediately after the vote on that bill last Wednesday, Manchin and Schumer announced their deal.
McConnell admitted on Fox News that the deal flabbergasted him as much as anyone. “I think all of us were so much shocked by Senator Manchin’s reversal of positions he’s taken as recently as last week against raising taxes,” he said, calling the package “terrible”.
Fox News’ Baier read a question from a viewer who asked how McConnell had gotten “played” on the bill. “Reconciliation is something done by one party only,” he responded. “There’s nothing we could have done to prevent the Democrats from doing a bill that only they will vote for. So it’s not a question of being played here. What the storyline is here is that Senator Manchin has agreed to something that he had said publicly and privately over the last two weeks he would never agree to.”
But as Baier pointed out, this is hardly the only area where Republicans are in trouble.
In critical Senate races across the country, Republican candidates are struggling to pull away from their opponents, or even polling well behind them. Among the standouts are Herschel Walker in Georgia, JD Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. All three were endorsed in their primaries by Donald Trump, who either cleared the field for them or gave their campaigns a much-needed boost. But each of them have come with serious baggage.
On Tuesday, another Trump-backed candidate, venture capitalist Blake Masters, won the Republican primary to challenge Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona. Masters has repeated many of Trump’s lies about the election being stolen and has a history of making racist remarks. An endorsement from the founder of a neo-Nazi website (which Masters rejected) did not do anything for his image.
As if this weren’t enough, McConnell and the rest of the GOP received a massive shock on Tuesday when voters in ruby-red Kansas overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the state’s Constitution that would have banned abortion.
No individual Republican is more responsible for overturning Roe v Wade than McConnell. During the Obama administration, he blocked Merrick Garland from even having a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, citing a non-existent principle of not confirming justices in an election year. That maneuver paved the way for the confirmation of Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, followed by Brett Kavanaugh (despite sexual assault allegations which he vehemently denied) and Amy Coney Barrett (just weeks before the 2020 presidential election).
As far as the socially conservative wing of the GOP is concerned, overturning Roe was a holy grail they had been chasing for decades. But when asked by Baier about the electoral implications for his party, McConnell was coy.
“Well, I think what the Supreme Court has done is said people who are elected by the American people are going to deal with this highly sensitive issue,” he said. “And it will be playing out all year, and I don’t think we really know until the end of the year.”
It was a cryptic yet fastidious answer from Washington’s most cryptic yet fastidious politician – a man now dealing with the fact that simmering dissatisfaction at a Supreme Court of his own making has boiled over into outrage at the polls.
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