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Al Cross: Why is Coach McConnell downplaying his team’s chances? Follow the money.

A reporter for a right-wing publication emailed me the other day, seeking my “thoughts on the public feuding between Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and what their disputes may mean for the November midterm elections. Are voters in swing states likelier to listen to Trump, or to McConnell?”

The reporter’s question seemed designed to remind readers who’s boss in the Republican Party: the man who, as president, inspired and countenanced the insurrection that tried to overturn the election he lost, then took top-secret government documents and refused to return them. Those facts seem lost on tens of millions of Republicans, so there’s no question who has their ears, and it’s not McConnell.

Even the premise of the question was faulty. As usual, all the noise has come from Trump, who repeated his explicit insults of McConnell (adding his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao) after McConnell threw implicit shade on some of the Senate candidates Trump has supported.

Asked Aug. 18 in Northern Kentucky about the midterm elections, McConnell said, “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, uh, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

By “candidate quality,” McConnell means the ability to win. And some Republicans who won primaries with Trump’s support, such as Herschel Walker in Georgia and Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, look shaky.

The senator mentioned no candidates. He went on, “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”

He kept it up Monday in Georgetown, saying of Democrats, “I can’t think of many ways they haven’t mismanaged this economy. Whether or not they’ll end up paying a price for it this fall is unclear.”

McConnell, a football fan, likes to cast himself as either the offensive or defensive coordinator of Republican senators, depending on whether they’re in the majority or the minority (as they are now, due to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote). Coaches are usually more upbeat before a game, but McConnell rarely says anything important that isn’t previously calculated. So what’s going on here?

The big game isn’t until Nov. 8. Another game is underway, and it’s about money. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has out-raised its Republican counterpart four months in a row and has more than twice as much money on hand. The Republican committee is reducing advertising in key states after burning through most of its cash, and its chair, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, is being accused of mismanagement.

Meanwhile, Trump is probably costing other Republicans money, as his relentless fund-raising operation capitalizes on his supporters’ reaction to the FBI search of his home for secret documents.

Money is central to McConnell, who rarely makes news and usually chooses when to make it. He surely knew that his calm, matter-of-fact analysis in Kentucky would be amplified by news coverage and serve as a national alarm bell for Republican contributors to cough up the money he needs to become majority leader again.

Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, a “super PAC” aligned with McConnell, put a whopping $28 million behind the underfunded campaign of Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in Ohio, a state that should be safe for the GOP but isn’t. Trump backed Vance in the primary, so McConnell can say he’s agnostic about Trump when it comes to elections.

But beyond one set of elections, what about the future of our democratic republic? McConnell blamed Trump for the insurrection and hoped to be rid of him, but not enough Republican senators went along, so he became a follower rather than a leader, even saying he would support Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024. His only talk of Trump is implicit; asked if he had something to say about Trump calling Chao “crazy,” he said, “No.”

Asked in Georgetown about an NBC poll that showed threats to democracy were voters’ top concern, McConnell tried to thread the needle: “I do think it’s an important issue. . . There were those who were trying to prevent the orderly transfer of power for the first time in American history, and that was not good. It was thwarted. But look, I think we have a very solid democracy. There is very little election fraud. There is some. We’ve had some in Kentucky and people have gone to jail for that. But our democracy is solid. Of the things we need to worry about, I wouldn’t worry about that one.”

Is McConnell whistling past the graveyard? He probably hopes that Attorney General Merrick Garland, whom he kept off the Supreme Court, has enough goods on Trump to keep him from being nominated. Or even elected.

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  1. Lee Thomason says:

    Will the NKYTribune host a candidates’ forum before the Nov. midterm election?

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