WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, spent the summer watching Democrats rating a series of legislative victories of the kind he once swore he would thwart.
His party’s crop of candidate recruits has struggled to realize traction, threatening his probabilities of reclaiming the Senate majority.
And this week, his dispute with the leader of the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm escalated right into a public war.
Because the Senate prepares to return to Washington next week for a final stint before the midterm congressional elections, Mr. McConnell is entering an autumn of discontent, a reality that appears far different from where he was expecting to be in the beginning of President Biden’s term.
Back then, the highest Senate Republican spoke of dedicating himself full time to “stopping this recent administration” and predicted that Democrats would struggle to wield their razor-thin majorities, giving Republicans an upper hand to win back each the House and the Senate.
As an alternative, the person known best for his ability to dam and kill laws — he once proclaimed himself the “grim reaper” — has felt the political ground shift under his feet. Democrats have, within the space of just a few months, managed to pass a gun safety compromise, a serious technology and manufacturing bill, an enormous veterans health measure, and a climate, health and tax package — either by steering around Mr. McConnell or along with his cooperation.
At the identical time, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade appears to have handed Democrats a potent issue going into the midterm elections, brightening their hopes of keeping control of the Senate.
Mr. McConnell has acknowledged the challenges. He conceded recently that Republicans had a stronger probability of winning back the House than of taking power within the Senate in November, partly due to “candidate quality.”
The comment was widely interpreted to reflect Mr. McConnell’s growing concern about Republicans’ roster of Senate recruits, heavily influenced by former President Donald J. Trump and his hard-right supporters, who’ve earned Mr. Trump’s endorsement but look like struggling in competitive races.
It also hinted at a more basic problem that has made Mr. McConnell’s job all of the tougher: his increasingly bitter rift with Mr. Trump, which has put him at odds with the hard-right forces that hold growing sway within the Republican Party.
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“Why do Republicans Senators allow a broken down hack politician, Mitch McConnell, to openly disparage hard working Republican candidates for the USA Senate,” Mr. Trump wrote in a social media post last month that also took aim at Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, calling her “crazy.” Ms. Chao served as transportation secretary within the Trump administration until she abruptly resigned after the Jan. 6 attack.
Anti-Trump conservatives argue that Mr. McConnell put himself in an untenable position by failing to totally repudiate Mr. Trump after the assault on the Capitol, when the Kentucky Republican could have engineered a conviction at Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, removing him and barring him from holding office again.
“It’s just like the zombie movie where he comes back to haunt and horrify you,” said Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist. Mr. McConnell, he said, “thought he could have an excellent final result legislatively and politically in 2022 without explicitly pushing back on Trump. That was the better course. It could become a really self-defeating course for him.”
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Mr. McConnell and his aides have said he is just playing the long game, doing what he must to preserve the filibuster, which Democrats have repeatedly threatened to dismantle to push through their agenda. And his Senate colleagues say Mr. McConnell is just not bothered by Mr. Trump’s broadsides, though he’s aware that a bloc of his members is heavily influenced by the previous president.
Still, the troubles come at what was presupposed to be a celebratory moment for Mr. McConnell, who has been in legacy-building mode, talking about eclipsing former Senator Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, as history’s longest-serving leader of either party and participating in a biography for which he has opened up his archives.
“Mitch cares very deeply for the institution, and there’s probably nothing more essential to him than preserving the filibuster,” said Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina.
He said it was not Mr. McConnell who had modified, however the Senate itself, with its 50-50 partisan breakdown.
“That is the Mitch McConnell that I met in 2013 after I was considering running for the Senate,” Mr. Tillis said. “Mitch McConnell’s mentality hasn’t modified since he was playing Little League Baseball.”
Which may be a part of the problem. Mr. McConnell has had a nasty break with Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the party campaign committee, who has styled himself in Mr. Trump’s image, recruited candidates loyal to the previous president, visited him often in Florida and Recent Jersey, and this week attacked Mr. McConnell, without naming him, for questioning those candidates’ probabilities.
“Unfortunately, lots of the very people chargeable for losing the Senate last cycle at the moment are attempting to stop us from winning the bulk this time by trash-talking our Republican candidates,” Mr. Scott wrote, calling such remarks “cowardice” and “treasonous.”
At the identical time, Mr. McConnell, who has long been thought to be a master legislative tactician and relentless obstructionist, has drawn criticism from inside his own ranks for striking compromises with Democrats, including on the gun safety bill and the manufacturing measure. Mr. McConnell has made plain that he views such deals as obligatory to win back suburban voters in politically competitive areas.
“Consider a football field. Search for the things throughout the 40-yard lines which you can agree on and make some progress for the country,” he said at a Chamber of Commerce lunch in Kentucky earlier this week, adding later, “I’m not in favor of doing nothing at any point, regardless of who gets elected.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, defended Mr. McConnell, saying he could possibly be a “partisan warrior” when he needed to be. “He’s obviously spending loads of time and energy to win control of the Senate,” she said.
But Mr. McConnell has also had less success of late along with his attempts to dam points of Democrats’ agenda that he opposes. He tried and didn’t scuttle their sweeping climate, health and tax package by threatening to withhold Republican support for the technology and manufacturing bill if Democrats insisted on pushing it through.
The threat angered Senator Joe Manchin III, the centrist West Virginia Democrat who had been holding out on the climate package, in response to an individual conversant in his pondering, and stiffened Mr. Manchin’s determination to salvage it. Democrats were ultimately in a position to win passage of the technology measure with support from a bloc of Republicans including Mr. McConnell, and just hours later, announced a surprise cope with Mr. Manchin that might allow them to enact their laws to chop carbon emissions, reduce the deficit and cap prescription drug costs.
Mr. McConnell’s aides have played down the importance of his comment about “candidate quality,” arguing that it was designed to spur donors to assist underfunded Republicans within the homestretch of the campaign. Mr. McConnell subsequently hosted a fund-raiser in Louisville, Ky., for 3 Republican Senate candidates: Herschel Walker, the candidate in Georgia; Dr. Mehmet Oz, the candidate in Pennsylvania; and Representative Ted Budd of North Carolina.
“Leader McConnell’s been on airplanes and on the phone all month, and that helped make August the most important month of the cycle thus far,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, the political motion committee Mr. McConnell controls, which has develop into the essential vehicle for donors to support Republican candidates.
Privately, some Senate campaign operatives have sharply criticized Mr. Scott, saying they were befuddled by his decision to embark last month on an Italian yacht vacation at the identical time that the committee was pulling television ad reservations in critical states, signaling it was losing hope of victories there. The trip was reported by Axios.
The bad blood has only served to underscore the party’s waning hopes of winning a Senate majority.
“I’m sitting on the leadership table with each of them every Monday night — there’s been tension,” Ms. Capito said. “Obviously there are some deep-seated bad feelings, and that’s very unlucky.”