During the reign of Roger Ailes at Fox News, there were some rules. One was that on-air criticism of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was, if not verboten, an ill-considered career choice. Ailes was McConnell’s media consultant in McConnell’s 1984 Senate campaign and was credited with turning certain defeat into that year’s biggest upset.
The Reagan landslide certainly helped. But McConnell’s victory was also the result of Ailes’ then-famous “bloodhounds” TV spots. In the telling. the bloodhounds were in search of the two-term incumbent, Dee Huddleston. The message: Huddleston was an absentee Senator, indifferent to the concerns of Kentucky’s electorate. It worked. McConnell won by ~3000 votes.
McConnell never, ever forgot how he got to the Senate. And as he gained power, he did what he could, when he could, to advance Ailes’s ambitions. Ailes, in turn, did what he could, when he could, to elevate McConnell’s standing as a Republican leader and national political figure. They were loyal to each other, always.
After Ailes was fired in 2016, Rupert Murdoch made sure McConnell continued to enjoy “special status” on the Fox News Channel. McConnell, in turn, was attentive to the Murdoch media empire’s political and regulatory “concerns.” The transition from Ailes to Murdoch was all but seamless.
And then, to everyone’s astonishment, Trump won.
That was fine for a while. Trump needed McConnell to get his legislative agenda (such as it was) through the Senate. McConnell needed Trump to provide the “right” judicial appointments to make the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, (much) more conservative.
But there was always tension. And in the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump sensed (accurately) that McConnell was anticipating (and perhaps even hoping for) the president’s defeat. Fast forward to the events of January 6th. From the well of the Senate, on January 19th, McConnell finally made his disdain for Trump crystal clear with a searing speech (by McConnell standards) that lay blame for the riots squarely on Trump.
Trump was enraged. Fox News was confused. But aside from Sean Hannity’s persistent McConnell bashing, which no one really took seriously, Fox aligned, gently, with McConnell. Murdoch, after all was a McConnell fan and more than glad to see the back of Trump.
And then the tide turned. Fox, like most everyone else, initially viewed January 6th as the End of Trump. That was not how the Fox News Channel’s audience viewed it, at all. They saw it as a patriotic uprising against a thoroughly corrupt political system. They were irate that Fox did not share their view(s).
I’ve said this more than once in previous notes, but I’ll say it again: There are two things that most people don’t understand about Fox News. The first is that a significant slice of the audience (Ailes thought it was 25–30%) thinks that Fox News is “too moderate” or “too liberal.” The second is that the audience programs the network, not the other way around. If 68-year-old conservative and right wing white males in the Middle West don’t like what they’re hearing on the channel, Fox immediately adjusts its coverage to make sure that they do.
A majority of the Fox News Channel’s audience had, over the course of his presidency, come to see Trump as their leader and Fox as his cheerleaders. When Fox abandoned its designated cheerleading role, a significant slice of the audience abandoned the network. The Murdochs panicked, firing a number of people thought to be insufficiently devoted to the Trump “base” and recasting the programming line-up to reflect its anger over and distrust of the election’s outcome.
Trump himself came to see McConnell as among those responsible for the election’s “illegitimate” outcome in the Electoral College. In Trump’s “Stop The Steal” narrative, McConnell was one of the many thieves and one far more important than most. Indeed Trump viewed McConnell as a traitor to the cause; a powerful Republican abandoning a Republican president in his hour of need. (Rule of law has never been an over-riding Trump concern).
And so began Trump’s concerted campaign to have McConnell “deposed” as the Republican leader in the Senate. It took a while to get going, but by December of last year, it had gathered enough momentum to produce this headline at the on-line political website Axios: “Trump Republicans eager to dethrone McConnell as GOP leader.”
It’s worth quoting the entire piece that ran below the headline:
Mitch McConnell is facing a frontal assault from emboldened pro-Trump Republicans eager to unseat him as the Senate’s GOP leader.
Why it matters: The Kentuckian has long been viewed as the most powerful Republican in Congress, a figure many in the party have feared turning into an enemy. His endurance has allowed him to reshape the Supreme Court and dictate much of the national political agenda for over a decade.
- Taking on McConnell risks not only triggering his wrath in the Capitol but making candidate-critics vulnerable to targeting by his ample supply of campaign cash.
- The challengers have been emboldened as Donald Trump has lambasted McConnell — giving them both political and financial cover.
- “What is wrong with this Broken Old Crow?” the former president said in a statement tweeted by his spokesperson on Sunday. “He’s hurting the Republican Senators and the Republican Party. When will they vote him out of Leadership?”
Between the lines: Kelly Tshibaka, a primary challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said Monday that “when I defeat Murkowski and become Alaska’s next U.S. senator, I will not support Mitch McConnell as leader.
- “It’s time for new, America First leadership in the Senate,” she said, echoing a Trump theme.
- Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, running to fill Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) upcoming vacant seat, made a similar pledge in September.
Steven Cheung, a Greitens adviser and former Trump administration official, told Axios opposing McConnell could become a “litmus test” for campaigns eager to show their loyalty to Trump.
- Cheung said research from GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio’s team indicated that “in the primary, if you’re anti-Mitch, your numbers go up.”
- “It’s a test for how Trumpian you are.”
- McConnell gave Trump political cover for much of his presidency, with his wife, Elaine Chao, serving in the Cabinet as Transportation secretary.
- The two had a falling out after McConnell criticized Trump for challenging the 2020 election results.
Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential conservatives in the country, castigated McConnell during his Fox News show last week — and promised to make the minority leader a consistent object of scorn in future segments.
- “In Washington, he’s known as the nastiest old woman in town,” Carlson said on his show last week during a segment about Bob Dole’s funeral.
- “This is hardly the first time McConnell has done something vicious like this, but we thought going forward we would start telling you about it, because why wouldn’t we?”
- A national Republican consultant working on House and Senate races told Axios: “I don’t think there is anyone, with the possible exception of Trump, who can do more damage to your credibility with GOP voters than Tucker.”
GOP donors also are furious with McConnell and other Republicans who voted for President Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
- As Axios reported last month, donors have complained it was foolish to help deliver a win to a Democratic president.
In addition, several Senate Republicans have privately and publicly criticized McConnell for cutting a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to raise the debt ceiling.
- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said: “I don’t like that a lot. … What we did is promised one thing and delivered another.”
- Graham then fired a warning shot: “If we’re going to be successful in 2022, we’re going to have to work together as a team. And here’s what I would say to every Republican: If you want to be … a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, and you don’t have a working relationship with Donald Trump, you cannot be effective. So, I hope we’ll get on the same page here.”
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We can run through the bill of particulars fairly quickly.
- The idea that Mitch McConnell is a productive primary issue for right-wing or Trumpian challengers is a stretch. He’s a distant rallying cry. And he was instrumental in getting much of what Trump wanted done, done.
- The idea that McConnell will be deposed by, say, Rick Scott (R-FL) or John Cornyn (R-TX) is fanciful. They don’t have the votes and no one wants to take a vote that McConnell might (and almost certainly would) win.
- The idea that GOP fund-raisers are disgruntled and eager to depose McConnell is nonsense. There are, obviously, some that are. There are many, many more who are not. Fund-raising for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell’s personal PAC is humming along at a record pace.
- Trump’s jihad is problematic for McConnell, but fails on two fronts. First, McConnell was re-elected in 2020, so he has (roughly) five remaining years of immunity from primary challenge and, according to those close to him, is unlikely to seek re-election in 2026 anyway. So he’s at least partially free of intra-party crossfire. Second, McConnell’s Senate colleagues are not keen on the idea that Trump decides who their leader is or should be. That’s their decision, not Trump’s. Pushing back, silently, is what virtually all of them have decided to do. Obviously, this works to McConnell’s advantage.
- The big problem is Fox. Fox can get the base all worked up. Fox “issues” can (and do) become talk radio “issues,” right-wing internet “issues,” Telegram chat room “issues.” An anti-McConnell tune can quickly become a chorus if all of the right-wing voices harmonize. At Fox, no one has a more devoted following on the outer banks of Trumpian populism than Tucker Carlson. So the fact that Carlson was alerting “the base” to the future attraction of an anti-McConnell jihad was indeed a problem; one that required immediate attention.
The Problem begat a question: what would Rupert Murdoch do? Cutting McConnell loose was risky business. Going against the grain of the Fox audience was as risky, if not more so. Fox lives and dies on ratings. If attacking McConnell “rated,” it would be almost impossible not to obey the Nielsen meters.
Murdoch’s first move was an editorial in The New York Post, which told Trump to lay off McConnell and focus on whatever it was the editorial writers imagined he should focus on. The key quote from the editorial was this:
“If the former president wants to keep guiding Republican voters, he should stick to the big picture and leave the tactics to Mitch.”
Trump ignored the advice and persisted with his attacks on McConnell, most recently (Tuesday) on National Public Radio. “Mitch McConnell is a loser,”“ said Trump. As NPR pointed out, that’s the kindest thing Trump has said about McConnell in months. This Politico piece features a number of Trump’s more pointed insults, including a few directed at McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who served as Trump’s secretary of Transportation for four years before resigning in the wake of the Capitol insurrection..
But what happened next was: Nothing happened. The promised anti-McConnell jihad downshifted on Fox. GOP Senators who might have challenged McConnell’s leadership sort of faded away. GOP fund-raisers unhappy with McConnell, in the main, clammed up.
And in rapid succession, the following developments occurred: McConnell announced that he would seek re-election as the GOP Senate Leader. Most every one of his Senate colleagues conceded that he would win re-election with ease. A key member of his leadership team, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, announced he would seek re-election and not be scared off by a Trump-endorsed challenger in his state’s GOP primary. Most surprising, South Dakota’s other Senator, Republican Mike Rounds, went on an ABC News Sunday show and proclaimed that Trump had indeed lost the election and added that it was time to “move on.”
Moving on! The very idea of “moving on” was, from Trump’s point of view, an epic insult. What made it even more insulting was what happened next. Rounds doubled down on his Sunday remarks, as follows:
“I stand by my statement. The former president lost the 2020 election. This isn’t new information. If we’re being honest, there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would have altered the results of the election.”
McConnell then endorsed his colleague’s statement:
“I think Sen. Rounds told the truth about what happened in the 2020 election. And I agree with him.”
One can imagine Trump’s reaction. The word “ballistic” comes to mind.
Fox hasn’t exactly shut down its criticism of McConnell. Sean Hannity keeps at it, ad nauseum. But the others seem to have put the subject aside. If they return to it, the question is whether they will do so wholeheartedly or because they need to punch the pander card for the sake of the ratings. Pandering seems more likely.
Rest assured that everyone at Fox News, and especially the show hosts, read the New York Post editorial, very carefully and more than once. Trump should focus on “the big picture” and “leave the tactics” to Mitch. All concerned, with the exception of Trump, appear to have absorbed the message.