Mitch McConnell is unleashing the full force of his political machine in an all-out push to stop two far-right conservatives who threaten to make his life miserable in the Senate.
The Republican leader is aiming to thwart Rep. Mo Brooks and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a special election in Alabama next month. Both men are campaigning against McConnell as a despised symbol of the establishment — and both would exacerbate his already stiff challenge wrangling his GOP Conference.
McConnell is responding in kind. His super PAC is set to spend much as $8 million to boost his favored candidate, recently appointed Republican Sen. Luther Strange. McConnell has activated his sprawling donor network and pressed the White House for more resources. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm McConnell controls, has warned consultants they’ll be cut off from future work if they assist Strange’s opponents.
And in a highly unusual step, one of McConnell’s top political lieutenants has begun quietly advising a long-shot Republican primary candidate running for Brooks’ House seat. The move is designed to get in the congressman’s head and dissuade him from emptying his campaign war chest in the race for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat.
It’s a massive undertaking by McConnell and his allies on behalf of Strange, who was appointed a mere six months ago to fill the seat until a special election. In part, McConnell’s urgency reflects his long-standing promise to protect besieged Republican incumbents in primaries. But it also underscores his struggles managing his narrow Senate majority, which were punctuated by the collapse of Obamacare repeal legislation last week after three Republicans broke ranks.
This past week, Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he would not vote for McConnell as majority leader and called for him to step down after the failure of the health care bill.
Moore, who rose to national fame after he refused to obey a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from an Alabama judicial building, made his feelings clear about the leader in a lengthy fundraising appeal with the subject line, “You & Me vs Mitch McConnell.”
“If Mitch McConnell is accusing me of being a ‘conservative rebel’ who won’t march in lockstep behind his Big Government, big-spending agenda,” Moore wrote, “then I plead guilty as charged!”
“I don’t have — nor want — the backing of Mitch McConnell and his cronies in Washington,” Moore added.
As he corralled Obamacare repeal votes last week, McConnell said he was all in for Strange. “As I would be with any Republican senator. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”
McConnell will put his formidable fundraising operation to work this week. On Tuesday evening, he’s slated to co-host a Capitol Hill reception and dinner benefiting Strange. Attendees are being asked to give up to $10,000, according to an invitation.
Much of the Republican leader’s effort in the race is being overseen by the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund. In April, the super PAC held an event in Birmingham, Alabama, to outline its plans to defend Strange, who made an appearance for part of the gathering. Also present was former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, who knows Strange, a former state attorney general, from his past work on Alabama judicial races.
“We’re in for Luther — money, marbles or chalk,” Rove told the crowd, according to one attendee.
Since that time, the group has orchestrated a blistering assault against Brooks. Ads portray the four-term congressman as unsupportive of President Donald Trump, a damaging line of attack in a state where the president is widely popular. One recent Senate Leadership Fund TV ad used footage from 2016 in which the Alabama congressman called then-candidate Trump untrustworthy.
The offensive was borne out of private polling the group conducted in May testing how voters in the state felt about Brooks’ comments about Trump last year. There is evidence that the attacks are taking a toll on the congressman. An independent survey released last week showed Strange leading with 33 percent, Moore at 26 percent, and Brooks at 16 percent.
Senate Leadership Fund has spent $3.5 million on the race, by far the largest expenditure of any outside group. Yet that figure is expected to grow significantly, especially if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the Aug. 15 primary and the contest is forced into a September runoff, as is widely expected. The group has pledged to drop $6 million to $8 million.
“While he doesn’t direct what we do, McConnell has made it very clear that Luther’s race is his No. 1 political priority right now,” said Steven Law, Senate Leadership Fund’s president and a former chief of staff to the Republican leader.
The McConnell team is also trying to rattle Brooks. Republican strategist Ward Baker, a McConnell ally whom the leader hand-picked to serve as NRSC executive director during the 2016 campaign, has been offering guidance, free of charge, to Clayton Hinchman, a 34-year-old, West Point-educated Iraq War veteran who has launched a primary campaign against Brooks for his north Alabama congressional seat. Hinchman is echoing many of the same themes national Republicans are using against Brooks in the Senate race, casting him as deeply disloyal to the president.
In an interview, Brooks said he believed McConnell’s fingerprints were all over Hinchman’s campaign. Brooks said the leader had engaged in a systematic effort to “strong-arm” and “bully” candidates opposing Strange.
“Alabama voters are starting to develop a strong dislike for Mitch McConnell and the establishment machine that thinks they have a right to dictate to the people of Alabama whether a person can qualify as a candidate and who voters would vote for,” Brooks said.
Before entering the race in May, Brooks said he reached out to McConnell’s office to arrange a meeting with the leader to discuss a list of concerns he had about Strange, whom he has described as ethically compromised. (When then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange in February, Bentley was under investigation by Strange’s office, which his critics have seized on.)
But Brooks said his request was rejected. “I don’t know if he cares or not,” the congressman said. “I know that he denied me the opportunity to meet with him to share this information.” (McConnell’s office declined to comment.)
While McConnell’s team is increasingly optimistic about Strange’s prospects, it concedes the race hasn’t been easy. Senate GOP officials have made it clear to the administration they would like to see Trump express some measure of support for Strange. Yet three White House aides said they don’t expect a Trump endorsement, reasoning that the president has little to gain by injecting himself into a fierce intraparty fight.
McConnell recently grew frustrated when the Republican National Committee refused to release coordinated funding that the Senate GOP campaign arm would be able to use to boost Strange — a holdup that the leader and his political aides blamed on the White House. The expenditure was eventually made, but only after weeks of appeals. While McConnell personally lobbied then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, Strange spoke with Trump about it.
In a brief interview, Strange said he and Trump had discussed the race — “We just had a conversation about ‘How’s the race going, how you doing?’ That sort of thing” — but that he wasn’t expecting any kind of declaration of presidential support.
As for the help he was getting from McConnell, Strange said he was “very happy to have the support of my colleagues. Who wouldn’t be?”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.