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McConnell wants to win the suburbs by defusing cultural hot buttons. Trump and his own party have other ideas.

The Senate minority leader's new dealmaking posture, a shift from his Obama-era stance, marks a bid to soften the GOP's image with swing voters ahead of the midterm elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at the Capitol on May 3, 2022.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at the Capitol on May 3.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted for the most significant gun violence prevention bill in nearly three decades, he offered a candid explanation for his turnaround after decades of opposing firearm restrictions.

“It’s no secret that we’ve lost ground in suburban areas. We pretty much own rural and small-town America. And I think this is a sensible solution to the problem before us, which is school safety and mental health,” McConnell told reporters. “And yes, I hope it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs that we need to regain in order to hopefully be a majority next year.”

The Kentucky Republican’s goal is to downplay the contentious issues on which suburban voters may be more sympathetic to Democrats — including gun restrictions, abortion rights and former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen — to soften the GOP's image with this group of voters ahead of the midterm elections.

A Republican leadership aide familiar with McConnell's thinking said he wants to make the 2022 midterms a referendum on President Joe Biden, hoping that disenchantment over inflation and gas prices will power the GOP back into the majority. “Not about Trump. Not about guns. Not about abortion. But about the things that are really keeping people up at night," the source said. That means "taking your foot off the gas occasionally" from opposition if a deal is popular, without sacrificing his principles, the aide said.

McConnell’s theory is based on a political realignment: Since 2012, culturally conservative and rural areas that used to be divided between the parties have swung sharply toward Republicans, while the more moderate and well-educated suburbs that once voted GOP have trended toward Democrats. With big cities still deeply Democratic, suburbanites appear to be the new swing voters, and many of them fled the GOP after the rise of Trump.

But McConnell has a problem: He’s outnumbered in his own party as those cultural issues remain a major driving force for Republicans, who remain predominantly pro-Trump. And the bipartisan agreements he has endorsed — from the gun law to an infrastructure package to an emerging deal to prevent future election coups — are unlikely to play well in GOP primaries or with conservative voters. 

John Fredericks, chair of Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia, as well as a host on the right-wing Real America’s Voice platform, called McConnell a “RINO uni-party loser” for his spate of bipartisan deals, which he said were the result of “fears” over Trump’s return to power.

Trump himself has held rallies and promoted far-right candidates, while assailing the Kentuckian. “Mitch McConnell and his RINO [Republicans in name only] friends would rather see a Democrat like Biden be president than a Republican like me,” he claimed recently. Earlier, he said: “As far as Mitch McConnell, I am not a fan and there’s been no harsher critic than me. He has been absolutely terrible, and very bad for the GOP.”

'You know who lives in the suburbs? Millennials'

McConnell has another problem: The suburbs are more liberal and diverse than they were a decade or two ago, undergoing a generational shift and increasingly populated by millennials, who overall identify as more liberal than their Generation X elders or baby boomer parents.

“I’m not sure how effective [McConnell’s] strategy will be in the current moment,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. “You know who lives in the suburbs? Millennials and younger people. Millennials with these values are moving out and changing the politics of suburbs.”

Della Volpe said the “snowball effect” of Donald Trump back in the news, Jan. 6 revelations and right-wing Supreme Court decisions like the elimination of Roe v. Wade protections and expansion of gun rights are keeping cultural issues front and center in the 2022 midterms.

While 15 Senate Republicans voted for the modest gun bill written by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, a R-Texas, 33 Republicans voted against it.

On abortion, McConnell praised the landmark ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade but played down its impact, saying it “doesn’t mean there won’t be any abortions.” He said it’s an “extremely sensitive issue” and predicted that Congress wouldn’t have the votes to ban abortion nationwide.

“In the Senate most things require 60 votes,” he said at a recent event in Kentucky. “Neither side of this issue has come anywhere close to having 60 votes. So I think this is likely to all be litigated out, dealt with in the various states around the country.”

Still, other Republicans are keeping the door open to pursuing nationwide abortion restrictions, including Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who's a member of McConnell’s leadership team, as well as Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Ted Cruz of Texas.

McConnell has vowed to preserve the 60-vote threshold if Republicans come to power and it stands in the way of their goals. But progressives don’t believe him.

“I have no doubts that if given the opportunity, Mitch McConnell will try to force a nationwide abortion ban. This has been five decades in the making for the Republican Party — to overturn Roe v. Wade. And they’ll use everything; they’ll eliminate the filibuster for that,” said Nelini Stamp, national organizing director of the progressive Working Families Party.

'A different political environment'

Rohit Kumar, McConnell's former deputy chief of staff and now the co-leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ national tax practice, said McConnell’s willingness to strike some deals should not come as a surprise, even to those who recall much less dealmaking during the Obama administration.

It’s primarily a product of congressional math, he said. With a 50-50 Senate, a 60-vote rule for most bills and a razor-thin House majority, Democrats know they will have to slim down their agenda to get major bills passed, which means engaging with McConnell.

“So to me, it is not something fundamentally different about President Obama versus President Biden, or McConnell’s affinity for Biden or disaffinity for Obama,” he said. “It’s more that they’re operating in a different political environment. They are forced to be more moderate in their ambitions. And as a result, they are getting more bipartisan results, because they are seeking and forced to seek bipartisan results.”

Additionally, a Republican Senate aide had a one word answer for how they thought these policy achievements will be viewed by GOP voters: “Poorly.”

“I don’t like it,” this aide said. “It’s a tough sell.”

The source, speaking candidly on the condition of anonymity, said McConnell’s dealmaking represents a course change from the Obama era, when he fought to prevent numerous major deals and spoke openly about the rewards of denying bipartisan cover to a Democratic president to weaken him politically.

“To a certain extent after January 6, McConnell’s broader political perspective has changed, and he is concerned about his legacy,” the aide said. “And if he went just full Obama-era McConnell under Biden and was like ‘nothing’s passing,’ I think in his mind, he might be associated with unsavory elements of the party and stuff that he’s actively denounced in the Trumpian side of the party in a way that he is trying to avoid.

“That means going against the base more than he used to and maybe being more amenable to dealmaking with Biden,” the aide added. “From his perspective, he’s the ultimate dealmaker and he’s concerned about all the races and securing the majority. But the gun bill is going to be a liability in these primaries.”