In Twilight of Senate Career, McConnell Sees 2024 Races as Last Hurrah

In Twilight of Senate Career, McConnell Sees 2024 Races as Last Hurrah

As the 2022 elections approached with some Republican Senate candidates on the ropes, Senator Mitch McConnell was already looking ahead to 2024. He saw opportunity in the person of Jim Justice, the popular Republican governor of West Virginia whose term would — fortuitously for Mr. McConnell — end in 2024.

“Here we had a guy who was term-limited and who everybody assumed was going to just go off into the sunset,” recounted Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader. “But he had to-die-for numbers.”

Mr. McConnell secretly flew to West Virginia on Oct. 19, 2022. Over lunch at Governor Justice’s home, he tried to interest him in running for Senate. In April 2023, Mr. Justice announced he would seek the seat held by Senator Joe Manchin III, probably the only Democrat with any chance of winning in super-red West Virginia.

In November, Mr. Manchin announced he would not seek re-election. Earlier this month, Governor Justice won his primary, putting him squarely on track to capture the Senate seat, which would leave Republicans just one seat shy of a majority.

“I’m pretty sure, barring some intervention, that’s No. 50,” said Mr. McConnell, referring to the number of seats his party would control if all went according to plan. Democrats would need to hold everything they now have in the 51-to-49 Senate or pick up a Republican seat to stay in the majority next year, he noted. “They’re left with trying to have a perfect score.”

Though Mr. McConnell is stepping down from his leadership post in 2025 and is widely expected to retire when his term ends in 2027, he is determined to leave his successor with a majority in the Senate after heading his party in both the minority and the majority over almost 18 years. His personal effort to recruit Governor Justice was a central element of his plan.

Another piece was some more recent prodding aimed at helping to persuade Larry Hogan, the popular former two-term governor of Maryland, to run for that state’s Senate seat, forcing Democrats into a competitive race to defend their foothold in the solidly blue state for the first time in four decades.

While McConnell said his own lobbying of Mr. Hogan was limited, his wife, the former cabinet secretary Elaine Chao, met with Yumi Hogan, Mr. Hogan’s wife and a friend of hers, to make the case for the upsides of life in the Senate.

Mr. McConnell said he had discovered firsthand from election-year disappointments when Republicans fell short of the majority in 2010, 2012 and again in 2022 that it was a mistake to put forward Senate contenders able to prevail in a primary only to lose in the general election.

“I’ve learned that the hard way,” said Mr. McConnell, long a top fund-raiser for his party’s campaign efforts. “In a reasonably competitive state, if you don’t have a credible candidate in November, you are not going to win.”

Mr. McConnell said he thinks Republicans have put that lesson to good use this year, beginning with Governor Justice and Mr. Hogan. But while Mr. McConnell says Republicans have solved “candidate quality” issues, Democrats aren’t convinced. They contend that Republicans in key races against Democratic incumbents in states such as Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin have weaknesses they can exploit.

“I am going to stop him — or I should say, I know we are going to stop him,” Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said of Mr. McConnell’s push. “We are going to hold the majority.”

“Their candidates have a lot of money,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, noting that Republicans have recruited multiple hopefuls who can underwrite their own campaigns, freeing up money for other races. “But they are not good candidates.”

Mr. McConnell has always demonstrated a deep interest in Senate politics and the twists and turns of campaigns. He headed the Republican campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for two consecutive cycles in 1998 and 2000, though he acknowledged that “we didn’t do that well” during those cycles, with a draw in one and the loss of four seats in another.

But the minority leader sees winning the majority in the Senate as the route to power, which he has been unapologetic about exerting when given the chance.

“The most important thing is to get to 51 so you can control the agenda,” said Mr. McConnell, citing his decision as majority leader to block President Barack Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat in 2016, a crucial step toward pushing the court to the right. “Or, in the case Democrats don’t like me over, don’t fill a Supreme Court vacancy close to the election.”

The last election cycle vexed Mr. McConnell because, unlike most election years when he was in sync with the head of the campaign committee, Mr. McConnell found himself at odds with Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who was heading the campaign operation and had his own ideas about how things should be done.

While Mr. McConnell’s strategy was to purposefully avoid laying out a legislative agenda to show what Republicans would do if they retook the Senate, Mr. Scott thought otherwise. He unveiled a detailed plan that backfired by allowing Democrats to accuse Republicans of plotting to undermine Medicare and Social Security.

Democrats ended up gaining a seat and Mr. McConnell and his allies attributed that to Republicans working at cross purposes, particularly in the case of former President Donald J. Trump endorsing Senate candidates who couldn’t survive general elections.

Hoping to avoid a similar collision this cycle, Mr. McConnell deputized Josh Holmes, a former top aide who remains a close political adviser, to reach out and work with senior officials of the Trump campaign to try to get the two sometimes warring camps on the same page when it came to Senate races.

“A big piece of that was to try to figure out if we could get back to the working relationship on the campaign side like we had in 2018 and 2020,” said Mr. Holmes. “To a certain extent, we were ensuring that we weren’t going to have a diametrically opposed point of view in terms of who is the best candidate.”

Mr. McConnell is also working hand in hand with Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, who succeeded Mr. Scott in the chief campaign role.

Despite his recruitment success, Mr. McConnell stopped short of guaranteeing a Republican majority next year, given that Democrats are defending incumbents in the most hotly contested races. “Say what you will about us unpopular incumbents,” he said, “we usually win.”

That was one reason he focused so intently on West Virginia. He and his political team figured that the entry of someone of Governor Justice’s stature would be a deterrent for Mr. Manchin, who wouldn’t be interested in running a losing campaign.

“His theory of the case was if you get someone like Justice in the race, Joe Manchin is going to find something else to do,” said Mr. Holmes.

Mr. McConnell said he couldn’t be sure how much his pitch was a factor in the governor’s decision making, but that he tried to convey that Governor Justice would be a valuable member of the Republican team, one determined to push back against Democratic ideas.

Mr. McConnell also made sure to cozy up to an ever-present member of the governor’s entourage — his English bulldog Babydog.

“I met Babydog before anyone outside of West Virginia,” Mr. McConnell said.

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