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McConnell strikes confident tone as midterm elections near

The Senate majority leader downplayed GOP divisions in a pre-election conversation with reporters Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meets with reporters at the Capitol on Oct. 17, 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meets with reporters at the Capitol on Oct. 17, 2018.Frank Thorp / NBC News

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that it would be a "futile gesture" for a Republican to consider a primary challenge to President Donald Trump in 2020, pointing to the president's rock-solid standing among the party's base as a significant obstacle.

"But everybody’s free to run if they choose to," McConnell said.

During a wide-ranging conversation with reporters that underscored the delicate balancing act he and other congressional Republicans have mastered since Trump took office, McConnell also deflected questions from reporters about whether the president should shoulder any blame if Democrats capture the House or Senate in this year's midterm elections.

McConnell downplayed the likelihood of a potential showdown after the elections on the border wall even as the president has insisted that Congress fully fund his proposed border wall. He said Republicans in Congress were not expecting to convince Trump to move on changes in entitlement programs that they insist are necessary to cut the deficit.

And he teased reporters who sought his reaction to Trump's tweet referring to Stormy Daniels as "horseface."

"Respectfully, how much time are we going to waste with you all asking me questions I’m not going to respond to?" he said.

But even as the Kentucky Republican walked a fine line as it relates to Trump, he struck a confident tone in talking about his party's chances of at least maintaining control of the Senate, thanks in large part to the cause he personally has championed as the Senate leader — confirming conservative judges.

The bitter fight to confirm now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh "clearly was like an adrenaline shot for us, no question about it," he said.

"The presumption of innocence and the tactics that were used by the people who were running us out of restaurants and chasing us to our homes and getting in our faces here in the complex — those two things crystalized this for our voters and gave us, I think, exactly the energy boost we needed going in to the election," he said.

McConnell arrived saying he had just seen fresh polling data confirming the idea that GOP voters were increasingly energized. But he was careful not to declare victory prematurely.

"It's pretty obvious that we have very competitive races in Arizona and Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida. I don’t think any of them are over one way or the other," he said. "Everybody, on both sides, is doing everything they can to win. And somewhere in all of that is a majority for somebody. And I'd rather start out at 51 than 49, so we probably have a slight edge."

McConnell also gave some measure of credit to Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke for giving Republican Sen. Ted Cruz a tougher than expected battle in Texas. But even though McConnell and Cruz have sparred in the past, he expressed no reluctance about pouring resources into the race to help him now.

"I don’t take the kind of rough and tumble of politics personally," he said. "It's important, I think, to the country to have a Republican majority."