Donald Trump was not on the ballot this week for Republican leadership races in Congress, but in several key spots the proxy candidates espousing his approach to politics dealt the ex-president another losing hand.
Instead, McConnell flew off to his ninth straight election to lead the Senate Republican Conference in a landslide, with 37 votes in his corner to just 10 for Trump’s stand-in, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.).
Scott began his tenure chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee early last year by making up an award to present to the ex-president at his Palm Beach resort, continued into this year by not intervening in GOP primaries to block Trump-like candidates and ended with Democrats retaining the majority by defeating those mini-Trump candidates.
Across the Capitol, the Trump factor played out most clearly in the House GOP battle to become majority whip, the third-ranking post in the majority. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) ran aggressively and used his connections to Donald Trump Jr. and pro-Trump media personalities to present himself as the most conservative contender.
Instead, the third-term Republican made a classic mistake of relying too much on the outside game, never doing enough inside the Capitol to win over support on a secret ballot.
Banks lost to Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the least conservative of the three contestants, on a second ballot behind the support of many hard-working, avoid-the-spotlight Republicans who want a similarly aligned whip.
It’s the odd, quirky nature of these leadership races that confound outsiders who think they will unfold in the same manner as the broader political forces. Rather than a triumphant leader who makes great pitches on political talk shows, the modern congressional leader’s success depends on doing heavy lifting in getting legislation signed into law and an enormous amount of fundraising.
“Mitch has made the sacrifices,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said after Wednesday’s vote.
Cramer explained how McConnell has earned lots of support from rank-and-file Republicans for the way he absorbs lots of criticism — often from Trump — on bills that most Republicans privately want to pass but publicly vote against.
“I mean, his willingness to have tough votes,” Cramer said, “and his willingness to help navigate the place when others aren’t willing to — but they’re willing to be critical.”
McConnell’s former chief of staff runs the largest super PAC involved in Senate races, responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ad support for senators in tough races.
McConnell has been methodical for several decades in terms of working over his fellow Republicans to line up support long in advance of the biennial, post-election leadership races.
In addition to his nine races for leader, he also won two for GOP whip and two for NRSC chairman. Scott’s challenge was just the second time anyone actually went all the way to contesting a vote against McConnell.
In the House, even some of the most conservative Republicans knew that Banks set himself up against a ceiling of support. The ex-president is more widely liked among House Republicans than their Senate counterparts, but that support still has its limits.
“He’s got a ceiling of about 40 percent of the conference,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a staunch conservative, said of Banks.
Why? “He was trying to represent the conservative element,” Massie said.
Emmer — who, unlike Banks, voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory — ran the National Republican Congressional Committee for the past four years, a grueling job involving travel and fundraising, leaving not as much time for the conservative media circuit.
A Google search for “Jim Banks Fox News” returns more than 12 million hits; the same search for “Tom Emmer Fox News” brings back 591,000.
The third entry in that race, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), already serves as chief deputy whip and campaigned as a traditional Southern conservative who wanted to work hard and help members.
In the end, the contest did not come down to the perceived Trump-family backing of Banks, but, rather, it pivoted on who would advance to the second ballot against the overly aggressive Trump-ite.
“One of you two will make it into the runoff with Jim,” Massie told Ferguson, whom he supported. “And then whoever makes it in the runoff is going to beat Jim.”
Banks came out of the first ballot in first, with 82 votes, and then Emmer edged out Ferguson by the narrowest of margins, getting 72 votes to his 71.
Then Emmer won, 115 to 106, over Banks in the next round, collecting the lion’s share of Ferguson’s supporters.
To be sure, those Republicans winning these leadership posts are not cutting all ties with Trump, and they are not bashing him publicly. In remarks Tuesday, McConnell pointed out that there were poor candidates in the midterm elections last week who made bad decisions, driving independent voters into the Democrats’ arms.
“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they’re involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks. And it frightened independent and moderate Republican voters,” McConnell said.
He never mentioned Trump by name. On Wednesday, at the news conference after his win over Scott, he deflected questions about Trump’s launch of his 2024 presidential campaign.
The day before, after he was nominated for speaker by House Republicans, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) snapped when asked about Trump’s timing.
“I just won the nomination for speaker. You’ve only asked me those questions for the last two years,” McCarthy said in a brief interview.
The constitutional intricacies of the House speaker post require McCarthy to do the most delicate dance involving Trump and his strongest backers in the Capitol.
He has publicly remained close to Trump, as a way to try to encourage him to rally his most ardent supporters to the polls for GOP candidates — and to avoid Trump opposing his elevation to speaker. Republicans on Wednesday were projected to take over in January.
More than 35 Republicans, some of Trump’s biggest supporters, withheld their support for McCarthy in Tuesday’s vote, and now he must win almost all of them over before a formal public roll call on Jan. 3, to receive the required majority vote.
And those opponents are using leverage, demanding rule changes to the favor of conservatives, to pry away at McCarthy. He may only be able to spare a couple of votes in January — and his rivals intend to grind him down before they give in.
“I think there’s a significant number of people who are just like — they view the potential of a McCarthy speakership with great disapprobation,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who ran a protest campaign against McCarthy, said after receiving 31 votes.
In the other leadership contests, where it just took a simple majority to win, Trump-style candidates found out that they needed to work the inside game a lot harder than the cable news shows.
In a June interview at his NRCC office, Emmer politely avoided answering a question about whether Trump should go hold rallies in key swing districts, crediting the ex-president for help with fundraising. Otherwise, his candidates would do whatever is best for them politically.
“We’re a member services business, and that’s what we do. We serve our members,” he said in June.
And that’s why he won his leadership race this week.