With his party facing an uncertain presidential election in six months and in clear and present danger of losing its 54-to-46 seat majority in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell is inarguably a man on a mission in 2016.
The Senate Majority Leader wants to stop President Barack Obama's ambitious efforts to impose a liberal agenda in his remaining year, prevent the confirmation of Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland – who he says is "no moderate" – and keep the Senate in Republican hands come November.
With voters deciding the fate of Senate seats in 34 states — 24 held by Republicans and only 10 by Democrats — the odds favor Democrats gaining the four seats they need for control if they win the presidency (a Democratic vice president would cast the tie-breaking vote) or even five seats to take outright control without a Democratic vice president.
"A dicey situation" is how the Republican known universally on Capitol Hill as "the Leader" characterizes the very critical Senate elections this year.
During a wide-ranging interview with Newsmax in his private office on Capitol Hill, McConnell also discussed a variety of "dicey situations" he is now dealing with, including the real possibility of a Donald Trump GOP nomination.
Former House Speaker John Boehner denounced presidential hopeful Ted Cruz as "Lucifer," saying he was "the worst lawmaker I ever worked with." Does McConnell share Boehner's view?
"I know this is going to disappoint you," McConnell, of Kentucky, chuckled, "But I have, in a thoroughly disciplined way, avoided inserting myself into the presidential campaign. And I think I'm going to continue that pattern and support the nominee of our party, whomever that may be."
True to form, he also abjures any criticism of front-runner Trump.
McConnell freely admits he doesn't know Trump well "but I've met him a few times in the past. He was always friendly and supportive. He's called me a couple of times recently and we've had pleasant conversations."
Though he would not criticize Trump directly on any policy issues, it's clear they are not on the same page on some key issues.
Take Trump's foreign policy. The billionaire has deemed NATO as "obsolete," rankling many conservatives who see the organization as a bulwark against an aggressive Vladimir Putin, key to maintaining pro-U.S. democracies in Eastern Europe and critical to defeating ISIS with our European allies.
"I think NATO has been the most important military alliance in world history. And it still is very important and relevant today," he said.
As to whether a "President Trump" would work well with the Republican-controlled Senate, the GOP Leader replied: "Obviously, there is a broader array of agreement when you have a Republican president than there is with a Democratic president. So depending on who wins the White House, I will have either greater opportunities or fewer opportunities."
Clearly, McConnell's "greater opportunities" also depends on Republicans holding their majority in the Senate.
With at least five Republican Senate seats in danger of flipping to the opposition party and thus costing the party its majority (now 54-46), the 2016 Senate races are what McConnell dubs "a dicey situation."
"I don't think the Democrats or the Republicans should be beating their chests and saying it's a done deal and they will be controlling the U.S. Senate next year," he said, "These are all very competitive states, states that are typically in the crosshairs of a presidential election as well.
"The good news for us is that we have very, very sharp incumbents in Kelly Ayotte [N.H.], Pat Toomey [Penn.], Rob Portman [Ohio], Ron Johnson [Wisc.], and Mark Kirk [Ill.] and a great candidate [for Democrat Harry Reid's open seat] in Nevada in [Rep.] Joe Heck," McConnell said.
But he does have his worries about the Florida seat open now due to Marco Rubio's decision not to run.
"Florida is so totally open no one knows," he said. "The filing deadline is not even until June and the primary is not until August."
As to whether Trump as the nominee would present a problem as head of the ticket, McConnell says "I think we have to let the two nominees be chosen and then figure out where the landscape is."
As many Senate candidates, especially those running in blue states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois, are preparing to run quite separate campaigns from a likely Trump-led GOP ticket, McConnell appears quite on board with that.
"The good thing about Senate races is they are statewide and you can develop a separate identity in statewide races that is a lot harder to do in a House race. Each of them is very capable, has an outstanding record, will have the money to remind voters of what they accomplished."
McConnell also sees Hillary Clinton as no shoo-in for the White House.
McConnell feels Hillary Clinton's greatest vulnerability is "she is the third term for Barack Obama. The president has not had a single quarter in seven and one-half years in which the rate of growth was above 3 percent. This underperforming economy, which leaves younger people with fewer opportunities, and bigger debt, is the legacy of eight years of Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton is another term for Barack Obama.
"Now our nominee, whomever that may be, needs to look out at the American people and say 'are you happy with where we are? You think this is as good as we can do, then she's your candidate. But if you think America can do better, you should be for me.'
"Do they want four more years just like the last eight? If they don't, then I think we have an excellent chance to win the White House."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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