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McConnell warns control of the Senate is ‘absolutely’ in play in midterm elections

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), joined by other senators, speaks to reporters after a closed-door luncheon with President Trump this week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Thursday that control of the Senate is “absolutely” in play in the midterm elections, identifying the nine battleground states he believes will decide the outcome in November. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, McConnell also confidently predicted that the government will not shut down in September just weeks before the midterms, despite recent agitation from President Trump that there will be “no choice” but to shutter the government in September if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall. 

“I always think it’s better to be candid and not try to spin people into thinking this isn’t going to be a challenging election,” McConnell said in the Thursday morning interview. “I think the safest place to be is just to say that this is going to be a very challenging election, and I don’t think we know in May . . . whether it’s Category 3, 4 or 5.”

With both parties trying to put their best foot forward for November's general election, here are five things to watch in this summer's preliminary elections. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Chuck Burton/The Washington Post)

McConnell’s comments about the midterms mark the latest alarms he has sounded about the prospect that Republicans could lose their House and Senate majorities this fall. Both are “absolutely” in play, he said. Trump’s low approval, an energized Democratic base and the struggles a president’s party historically experiences in his first midterm have concerned GOP strategists. 

Many have concluded that the House — where Republicans are defending suburban and exurban districts where anger with Trump is intense — is all but gone. They feel better about the Senate, where the political landscape is more favorable for the GOP. 

McConnell’s warning also is a clear message to Republican donors that they need to start writing checks to help the party keep its Senate majority to protect Trump and the GOP’s agenda next year.

GOP eager for Trump intervention in contested Senate primaries

Republicans are defending a slim 51-to-49 advantage in November. McConnell listed the states he believes the battle for the Senate will run through: Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida. 

“By any objective standard, those are the seats that are likely to be in play,” McConnell said. 

Notably absent from his list were three states that were key to Trump’s 2016 win, in which Democratic senators are up for reelection this year: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

McConnell said there are “credible candidates that could get onto the radar screen” in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But they are not yet in the tier of races he thinks will determine the majority.

Pennsylvania Republicans nominated Rep. Lou Barletta for the Senate on Tuesday. Last week, Ohio Republicans picked Rep. James B. Renacci. Trump endorsed both candidates. Wisconsin holds its primary in August. 

In three of the states McConnell mentioned, Republicans are playing defense: Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee. The retirements of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker — two of the GOP’s most outspoken Trump critics — triggered competitive open races. 

The Arizona primary is shaping up as a three-way race involving Rep. Martha McSally and two candidates running to her right: former sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state legislator Kelli Ward. McConnell prefers McSally. Trump has not expressed a choice publicly. Democrats landed a top recruit for the race, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. 

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is poised to be the Republican nominee in Tennessee. Democrats have recruited a formidable opponent in former governor Phil Bredesen. Corker has complicated the contest by heaping praise on Bredesen, prompting McConnell to urge Corker to stop doing that.

In Nevada, Dean Heller is fighting for his political survival as the sole Republican senator running for reelection in a state where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in 2016.

The rest of the nine states McConnell highlighted are places where Trump won — in most cases by a wide margin — and a Democratic senator is on the ballot. In West Virginia, for example, the president defeated Clinton by about 42 points. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III has said he hopes Trump will stay out of the race. 

Trump has stepped up his attacks against Democratic senators in those states, heartening Senate Republican leaders. He recently campaigned in Indiana for the GOP nominee, Mike Braun. And he has lambasted Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. 

The president’s approval has ticked up in recent months, and other polls have shown Republicans have improved their standing. McConnell didn’t put much stock in the recent data during the Post interview.

“The polls come and go. And recent polls have indicated, you know, kind of a movement in our direction. I expect to see that happen multiple times between now and November,” he said. 

Trump’s improved standing, energized GOP voters worry Democrats

He also emphasized that historical trends do not bode well for his party, even though the Senate map looks favorable. 

“It’s pretty hard to deny the history of off-year elections, particularly off-year elections two years into the first term,” McConnell said. 

Republicans also face a tricky special election in Mississippi, where appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is fighting back a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a hard-right Republican who has criticized McConnell. Democrats believe there is a chance they could pick up the seat.

One major complicating factor that could emerge before the midterms is if the federal government shuts down when current funding expires Sept. 30.

Trump made it clear that he was displeased with the $1.3 trillion spending measure he reluctantly signed into law in March, and he stressed that he would never sign such a massive bill again. 

“None of us are happy about omnibuses, but there were no surprises in there,” McConnell said Thursday. Referring to the White House, he added: “They were totally involved in the negotiation with Democrats that we finally reached. We’ll not be shutting down the government in the fall, either.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters this week that he has been speaking to McConnell and leaders on the Appropriations Committee to advance government funding bills in the regular fashion. McConnell said he has spoken to Schumer and Trump about the prospect of potentially canceling a previously scheduled recess to complete work on appropriations and nominations, adding that he’ll have more to say on the matter next week.

“I believe we can get all the bills done by the time we have to, which is in September,” Schumer said this week. “Okay?”

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