This week brought more examples, as three Republican candidates who ran campaigns that leveled pointed attacks at him lost their primary races Tuesday.
The most high-profile example was in West Virginia, where GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship placed third in the Republican primary after aggressively blasting McConnell, calling him “Cocaine Mitch” and taking aim at his wife’s heritage with a racially-charged reference to “China people.” Blankenship’s campaign spent an estimated $2.7 million on TV ads during the primary campaign, with at least a portion of that going to spots directly attacking McConnell.
In return, a Northern Virginia-based super PAC, Mountain Families PAC, whose donors are unknown but is thought to have ties to McConnell and Senate Republicans, spent about $1.3 million in ads attacking Blankenship.
McConnell, who rarely conducts interviews, took what sounded like a victory lap Wednesday following Blankenship’s decisive loss. “I am glad the people of West Virginia decided that particular approach of attacking me and my family was good for a distant 3rd place.” McConnell told Fox News on Wednesday.
He added: “We have intervened in primaries where we have needed to in order to guarantee that we had fully electable candidates on the ballot in November.”
And in a Tuesday night tweet, his political team had some fun with a retouched photo from the Netflix series “Narcos,” and a “thanks for playing, Don” message.
Blankenship isn’t the only anti-McConnell Republican that has failed to win in recent campaigns. Indiana Senate candidate Luke Messer, who criticized McConnell for not delivering for the party, came in third in his primary Tuesday. And Ohio Senate candidate Jim Gibbons, who blamed the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act on McConnell, also lost.
“The results last night were a good reminder that a campaign against Mitch McConnell earns candidates a first-class ticket to last place.” said John Ashbrook, former top aide to McConnell, told NBC News.
The blame-McConnell strategy was one Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued during the special election last year where he prevailed in the primary despite the McConnell-aligned super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, spending nearly $5 million against Moore. But Moore lost in the general to Democrat Doug Jones after multiple allegations of improper sexual behavior with teenaged girls engulfed his candidacy.
Despite the poor track record, primary season is not over and some candidates are continuing the anti-McConnell attacks. Just as Blankenship was conceding defeat, another Republican Senate candidate — 2,000 miles away in Arizona — picked up on it.
“The thing that may make you mad is that Washington, D.C., wants to be involved in this race. They want to stick their nose into Arizona and try to pick our senator,” Kelli Ward said. “Well I want to tell Mitch, and I want to tell Chuck (Schumer), that we, the people of Arizona, are going to be the ones who decide who our next senator is going to be.”
McConnell and his political allies are not backing Ward in the primary race there, instead putting their resources and support behind Rep. Martha McSally, giving Ward more reason to attack the leader.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is vacating the seat that Ward and McSally are gunning for, said Congress also has an especially low approval rating, making it a natural enemy for candidates.
“A lot of people run against the congress and the leadership. That’s time honored tradition but you gotta have more than that,” Flake said. “It proved to be insufficient in West Virginia.”