JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Insurgent conservative Senate contenders are not the only ones distancing themselves from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Just ask Josh Hawley.
The Missouri attorney general, whom mainstream Republicans including McConnell recruited to run against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would not commit to supporting McConnell for leader if he is elected to the Senate.
“I think it’s a little premature to say who I would and wouldn’t vote for. I’m not committed to voting for anybody for any leadership position,” Hawley said in an interview this week. Committing support to anyone at this point, he said, would be “inappropriate.”
Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year that he and McConnell “helped recruit” Hawley into the race.
Hard-right Senate candidates such as Chris McDaniel in Mississippi have been campaigning on a platform of dislodging McConnell from leadership. Hawley is not going that far. But his refusal to voice support for the Kentucky Republican highlights the political risks of appearing to close to him.
One key question hovering over all Senate candidates this year is whether they will be dragged down by the leaders of their party caucuses. McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) could be liabilities in both primary and general election campaigns, with distrust of leaders in Congress running high.
Gallup polling last year showed less than a third of Americans had favorable views of McConnell and Schumer.
After the Senate tried and failed to undo the Affordable Care Act, there was anger in the party with McConnell, from Trump and others. The House had passed a plan to repeal and replace the law the party had vowed for years to shred. The Senate’s inability to complete the job was a blow to McConnell’s image.
He rebounded with the passage of a sweeping tax law and has also underscored his successful effort to confirm Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which thrilled conservative activists.
Still, Republicans have said privately that they worry about McConnell’s image and its potential impact on GOP candidates in the midterms.
In addition to running against McCaskill, Hawley will have to fend off primary challengers running to his right. President Trump is slated to travel to Missouri this month to help him raise money.
A McConnell spokesman pointed to a comment the majority leader made in a Fox News Channel interview last year. “Look, I’m not going to be on the ballot on any of the states, and I don’t think the candidates who are running need to take a position on me,” he said at the time.