Their man in Kentucky may be losing, but President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aren’t letting Gov. Matt Bevin’s election fortunes alter their own pact to win the state together in 2020.
Trump started the affirmation early, tweeting his confidence in the GOP leader Wednesday morning. McConnell arrived later at the White House to celebrate one of their major accomplishments: stacking the federal courts with the president’s judges, a fundamental priority of conservative evangelical Republican voters.
Bevin’s fate, despite the efforts by McConnell and Trump to prop him up, seemed to have only made their dependence stronger.
“Based on the Kentucky results, Mitch McConnell…will win BIG in Kentucky next year!” Trump predicted.
At the White House ceremony, Trump singled out McConnell for his role in securing the judicial confirmations. The senator received a long ovation and returned the nod.
“Mr. President, this is one of the many ways you’re helping to make America great again,” McConnell said.
The president’s optimistic outlook, though, met a countervailing assessment in Washington: Democrats, with their surprise showing in the Southern states in Tuesday’s elections, are gaining ground, particularly in suburban swing areas that are slipping out of reach for the GOP.
These are the headwinds facing McConnell, a consistently unpopular politician at home who is vilified by Democrats nationally as the face of Trump’s party in Congress, running perhaps his most difficult reelection campaign yet.
The ascent of Democrat Andy Beshear as a governor in Trump Country could provide an opening for Amy McGrath, a Marine fighter pilot and a favorite of Democrats nationally, who has already raised more than $10 million toward her bid to topple the Senate leader.
McGrath said that people voted for Trump was because “Kentuckians are so fed up about the dysfunction,” a system that’s not working.
“It’s Mitch McConnell that built that system,” she said. “You can’t drain the swamp unless you get rid of Mitch McConnell.”
Republican allies of McConnell acknowledge the historic flip in Kentucky, with an unexpected surge in voter turnout, but scoff at any suggestion that the Senate leader faces any real trouble at home.
Just 5,000 votes behind, the governor has asked for a recanvass, and because the election results are inside the margin for a recount in most states, The Associated Press has not yet called the race.
Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist with ties to McConnell, said there was a “branding problem in Kentucky. But not the GOP. All the Republicans won except Bevin. So the problem was his alone.”
Strategists of both parties say Kentucky remains a GOP stronghold and McConnell, a steely politician with a fine-tuned political machine, is far from the most vulnerable of incumbent senators next year.
What’s become increasingly clear, though, is that McConnell needs Trump more than ever, which is one reason he was seen spending much of this week at the president’s side.
McConnell flew with Trump on Air Force One to an election eve rally for Bevin in Lexington, Kentucky. On Tuesday, McConnell faced the cameras in Washington to predict that even if the House votes to impeach Trump, the Senate will not convict him and Trump will still be president.
Trump remains incredibly popular in Kentucky and McConnell, a button-down conservative, needs the unconventional president’s supporters to supplement his own base of establishment Republicans.
And perhaps more pressing, McConnell needs a ground game to match the growing Democratic machine in Kentucky.
Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, said his group identified some 800,000 potential voters and knocked on the doors of 41,000, as voters turned out in an effort that’s highly unusual for Bluegrass State politics.
“This election built a roadmap for how we can make a more meaningful challenge to McConnell’s re-election,” Morrison said.
McGrath said her team plans to replicate those “boots on the ground” and “the biggest field operation this state has ever seen.”
There are still primary campaigns to contend with and other candidates, including popular radio personality Matt Jones, may still challenge McGrath, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018 and has struggled at times with her message to voters.
And Democrats nationally have yet to throw their support to any candidate in Kentucky, as they concede it remains an uphill climb to defeat a seasoned leader like McConnell.
Al Cross, a professor at the University of Kentucky, said the senator is a pragmatic, transactional politician who, though he may not always align with the president, has embraced him.
“He has tied himself very closely to Trump because of his own unpopularity,” said Cross. “He doesn’t let emotions get in the way. … And he needs Trump to get re-elected.”