(The Hill) — Former President Donald Trump revved up his feud with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the weekend, just as Republican concerns are starting to grow about whether the party can flip the Senate red in November.
In a Truth Social statement on Saturday, Trump criticized McConnell, whom he labeled a “broken down hack politician,” for recent remarks about certain GOP Senate candidates, before taking a swipe at his “crazy wife,” former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who served in the Trump administration before resigning one day after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“Why do Republicans Senators allow a broken down hack politician, Mitch McConnell, to openly disparage hard working Republican candidates for the United States Senate,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
“This is such an affront to honor and to leadership. He should spend more time (and money!) helping them get elected, and less time helping his crazy wife and family get rich on China!” he added.
The dig at Chao, who before the Trump administration served eight years as Labor secretary under former President George W. Bush, was likely a reference to her family’s shipping business, Foremost Group, which has connections to China.
The Department of Transportation inspector general previously found that Chao utilized her department staff for matters related to the family business. The watchdog referred the situation to the Justice Department, which declined to investigate Chao.
Trump is using the more than year-old news as fodder for his latest attack on McConnell, Chao’s husband of 29 years, continuing his crusade against the longtime Republican leader, who he has taunted since he first ran for president in 2016.
But the latest iteration of the clash comes at a particularly precarious moment for the Republican Party, which is fighting tooth and nail to take control of the Senate as the once high odds of a GOP takeover have seemingly dwindled in recent weeks.
McConnell in November said the upcoming midterm elections would be “very good” for Republicans, citing President Biden’s low approval rating, but he has since toned that down, walking back that once-optimistic outlook over concerns about “candidate quality.”
Trump’s statement on Saturday came shortly after that recent prognosis.
But it’s not the first time Trump has targeted an elected official’s spouse.
During the 2016 GOP primary, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who he was running against, in response to a campaign ad — which had no known connection to Cruz — that featured his wife, Melania Trump.
Trump has even gone after the spouse of one of his own advisers when he called George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, “a total loser” and the “husband from hell” after George Conway suggested Trump was not fit to serve as president.
In Kentucky last week, McConnell told reporters that the House has a better chance of flipping red than the Senate, concluding that the final breakdown of the upper chamber after the November races will be “very tight.”
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell said, according to NBC News.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who previously worked with McConnell, said Trump’s statement on Saturday is another example of the former president putting himself at the center of a race, which in turn negatively impacts the party.
“If Donald Trump has invaded your messaging calendar for the day to grind some ax against Mitch McConnell, or to make everybody think that the Republicans are fighting each other, then you’ve lost the day,” Jennings told The Hill.
Democrats are currently favored to win control of the Senate over Republicans in November, 63 percent to 37 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.
McConnell’s mention of “candidate quality” was a veiled reference to Trump-backed Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and Arizona who have struggled to pull ahead of their Democratic opponents in recent polls, causing concern for Republicans who are looking to take control of the 50-50 Senate.
Those GOP nominees — namely Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia — have also been caught up in various scandals and controversies, further tarnishing their candidacies as the year inches closer to November.
But McConnell is still helping some of those candidates get elected regardless of his stated worries in an attempt to win control of the chamber and once again crown himself majority leader.
Last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund was spending $28 million on television and radio ads for “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, who is running against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in the Buckeye State.
And McConnell has endorsed Walker in his bid against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).
With Senate control hanging in the balance and Republicans hell-bent on tipping the upper chamber in their direction, GOP strategists say Trump’s recent criticism of McConnell is not helpful for the party as it works toward the midterm elections.
“Republicans should be focused on essentially three things: inflation, rising crime and the situation at the border. Any time that is spent off of those three issues, Republicans aren’t on offense,” strategist Doug Heye, who previously served as communications director of the Republican National Committee, told The Hill.
“And when they’re fighting amongst themselves because Trump has inserted himself yet again into the conversation, it doesn’t help any of those candidates remind voters of why they should be running in the first place,” he added.
Jennings, the GOP strategist who is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, said he believes Trump’s statement is an attempt to get ahead of his hand-picked candidates’ losses as they struggle to pull ahead of their Democratic opponents.
“I think what’s happening in Trump World is pretty obvious — they’ve nominated a bunch of people who are all in trouble in their races, and people are starting to wonder if they can win. And he’s trying to pre-but their losses by blaming anybody but himself,” Jennings said.
He drew a direct contrast between Trump and McConnell.
“I would just return you to, what’s helpful for the midterm? Air cover, messaging, and McConnell is providing both. What’s unhelpful for the midterm? In-fighting and putting Donald Trump’s 2020 election grievances at the center of his, of your strategy,” Jennings said.