Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has become a flashpoint for Republicans running for Senate in 2018.
The Hill asked nearly two dozen Senate candidates this week if they would support McConnell as leader if elected. Not one campaign said outright that they would support him, although two candidates appear to have expressed support in the past.
Several candidates declared their opposition to McConnell and attacked their GOP primary opponents for not taking a stance on the question. Other candidates deflected, or spoke on background about the bind they’re in over the question of McConnell’s leadership. Most candidates were eager to avoid the question entirely, and ignored multiple requests for comment.
The candidate survey underscores the tricky balancing act facing Republican Senate candidates in 2018, which is shaping up to be a proxy war between the party establishment and its grass-roots base.
On one side is McConnell and his deep ties to the national party’s donor network, a prized asset for any candidate facing a tough primary. On the other side is Breitbart chairman and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the anti-establishment provocateur with an influential news outlet who is asking candidates to oppose the majority leader.
“Ten years ago when you ran campaigns, especially after 9/11, it was all about leadership. You could talk about your role in Congress in making things better,” one top aide to a GOP Senate campaign told The Hill. “Now Republican voters want to burn the place down, so you have more of a tightrope.”
In primary races in Ohio and Missouri, candidates with crossover appeal between the grass roots and the establishment have both declined to endorse McConnell, but are under fire from their Republican opponents nonetheless.
GOP Senate hopeful Mike Gibbons is calling on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, the favorite in the race, to sign his petition demanding that McConnell retire.
Mandel, who received millions of dollars in outside support from the McConnell-aligned group American Crossroads GPS for his failed 2012 bid, ducked the question at a press conference this week and told reporters he’d address it when elected.
“Just like we would expect from the career politician that he is, Josh is refusing to take a position,” Gibbons said in a statement to The Hill.