Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Exclusive: McConnell ignores Trump's attacks and says 'I have the votes' in quest to make history

(CNN) It's become a throwaway line at former President Donald Trump's campaign rallies: GOP senators must boot Mitch McConnell from the leadership position he's held longer than any Republican in American history.

But McConnell has a message.

"I have the votes," the Senate GOP leader said bluntly, indicating he's locked down enough support to claim a new feat: The longest-serving Senate party leader ever, a record held by Democrat Mike Mansfield for more than four decades and which McConnell would surpass in the next Congress.

Yet whether he's in the minority or majority next year -- and if he continues to serve as GOP leader after 2024 -- are different questions altogether.

In a wide-ranging interview with CNN, McConnell weighed in on his outlook for the high-stakes battle for control of the Senate and warned President Joe Biden about how his nominees would be handled in a GOP majority. The GOP leader expressed his preference for a new Nebraska senator, defended votes that put him at odds with Republicans in the 50-50 Senate and steered clear of Trump's brazen personal attacks against him and his wife, Elaine Chao -- in an apparent attempt to avoid a distracting fight with the former President before the midterms.

And as Republicans grow nervous about their prospects of retaking the Senate, especially after allegations that Georgia Republican nominee Herschel Walker paid for a woman to have an abortion 13 years ago, the GOP leader indicated his belief that the battle for the majority is a true "cliffhanger" and that it's too early to know if the 2022 cycle will turn into a GOP debacle like 2010 and 2012 when lackluster general-election candidates cost his party a serious shot at the Senate majority.

"It was clearly a challenge in 2010 and 2012, with Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock," McConnell said, referring to GOP candidates in Nevada, Delaware, Missouri and Indiana, respectively, who lost general election matchups. "So it was clearly a problem in 2010 and 2012. Whether it's a challenge, whether it's fatal or a big problem this year, we'll find out" next month.

McConnell, who has been devoting enormous time to ensure his high-spending super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, continues to spend staggering sums across the airwaves in the final weeks of the midterm elections, indicated that he plans to stand by the anti-abortion Walker who has denied stunning allegations that one of the mothers of his four children had an abortion at his request.

"I think we're going to stick with Walker and all the effort we put in through SLF, we're going take it all the way to the end," McConnell said when asked if he had concerns about the revelations, arguing instead he believed the election would turn on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock's alliance with Biden.

"I talk to him fairly often," McConnell said of Walker, the former football star and novice candidate pushed into the race by Trump and backed by the GOP leader in the primary. "I think they're going to hang in there and scrap to the finish."

While McConnell and Trump have been at sharp odds since the GOP leader cast him as "practically and morally responsible" for the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, despite voting to acquit him at his impeachment trial, the Senate GOP leader has taken pains to avoid mentioning the former President or engage in a tit-for-tat with Trump and his powerful megaphone. In a recent tirade on his social media page, Trump said McConnell has "a death wish," attacking his votes on unspecified bills and saying the GOP leader is "willing to take the country down with him."

"I don't have anything to say about that," McConnell said about the attack against him, his first response to the episode.

In the same post, Trump issued a racially charged attack against Chao, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Taiwan and also served as Trump's secretary of transportation, calling her McConnell's "China loving wife, Coco Chow."

Asked if the racist comment about his wife was acceptable, McConnell did not want to respond to it.

"The only time I've responded to the President, I think, since he left office is when he gave me my favorite nickname -- Old Crow -- which I considered a compliment and after all, it was Henry Clay's favorite bourbon." He declined to comment further on the matter.

(The interview was conducted Friday before a member of his conference, Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, made racially charged remarks at a Trump rally over the weekend.)

With less than a month to the midterms, the GOP leader knows full well that a back-and-forth with the former President could distract the party's focus at a crucial time. And for McConnell, he says he's not concerned that a growing number of Republicans act like Trump rather than hew to the traditional GOP orthodoxy espoused by the likes of Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her Wyoming primary this year after her battle over Trump's "stolen" election lies. His only goal, he said, is winning elections.

"I don't have a litmus test," McConnell said when asked if he wants a party more in line with Trump or with Cheney. "I'm for people that get the Republican nomination, and for winning, because if we win we get to decide what the agenda is, and they don't."

Then-President Donald Trump listens to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speak about legislation for additional coronavirus aid in the Oval Office at the White House in July 20.

McConnell's future atop his conference

But Trump doesn't get a vote in a secret-ballot election in the Senate after the November midterms, and McConnell's reelection to the top post is virtually a lock -- whether they win or lose in next month's elections, according to interviews with more than two dozen GOP senators.

Yet publicly and privately, the interest in his Senate seat -- and his leadership post -- has begun to sprout. On Capitol Hill, the timing of McConnell's decision of when he may step aside as leader could have a profound impact on the leadership race to succeed him. That's because the current whip -- John Thune of South Dakota -- is term limited in the No. 2 position at the end of the next Congress.

If McConnell were to step aside from his top position at the end of 118th Congress, which ends in January 2025, it could give Thune a leg-up in a secret-ballot election. But if McConnell waits for longer to step aside, the next No. 2 could be seen as a frontrunner in the race.

As they await McConnell's decision, his potential successors-in-waiting are signaling interest in the top job if the GOP leader steps aside.

"Well, sure," Thune said when asked if he's interested in the GOP leaders' job when McConnell steps aside. "I mean, who wouldn't be, right?"

"If there's an opportunity, that's something I would be interested in pursuing," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former GOP whip and current member of McConnell's leadership team.

"I'm going to continue to serve the conference in any way that they feel is useful," Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican and currently the No. 3 in leadership, said when asked if he's interested in running for leader.

There are signs that McConnell could be preparing for the end of his term. Last year, he backed an effort in the state legislature to change Kentucky law on how successors to Senate seats could be named. The new McConnell-backed law would require the governor -- who is currently a Democrat -- to pick a successor from the same political party as the departing senator.

Privately, there's interest in his seat from his state's US House delegation, including Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican who has privately expressed serious interest in the seat if it opens up, according to sources close to the GOP congressman, with the domain name "BarrForSenate" already secured in case he decides to run. Other members of the delegation have kept the option open as well.

In the interview, the 80-year-old McConnell put to rest speculation that he might cut his current Senate term short and quit after the next Congress. His term ends in January 2027.

"Oh, I'm certainly going to complete the term I was elected to by the people of Kentucky, no question about that," McConnell said of the seat he's held since 1985.

But asked if he would stay as the Republican leader through his current Senate term, McConnell wouldn't say.

"I'm not going to go there," the GOP leader said. "I'm confident I'll be reelected to another two-year term."

On his preference for a potential successor for the leadership job, McConnell would only say: "I think there are plenty of people who could step in and do this job."

And he brushed back a question about whether he has made a decision about running again.

"I'm in the second year of my term, for God's sake," the GOP leader said.

But even though polls in Kentucky have long shown his popularity lagging, Republicans in the state say he could win again if he wants to run -- despite his battle with Trump.

"The thing about Mitch McConnell: his polling has never been really good," said Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican. "But he's such a good politician that on Election Day, he always makes sure that his opponent is less popular than he is."

Comer added: "He's a vicious politician in battle, and that has served him well over the years."

Maintaining support within his conference will be essential to keeping his leadership position. While most Republicans indicated they back the GOP leader maintaining his leadership post, several Republican senators declined to commit, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Kennedy of Louisiana, fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul and Rick Scott of Florida, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman who has been at odds with McConnell over strategy this year.

"There'll be an election and we'll figure it out," Scott said when asked if he'd back McConnell again.

McConnell, for his part, said this when asked if he had confidence in the job Scott is doing at the NRSC: "I don't have any criticism of Rick. I think they're doing the best they can."

McConnell's fingerprints are all over both the Senate races at play in the midterms and over potential newcomers as well. In Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Sasse just made known his plans to resign by year's end and take a job as the president of the University of Florida, McConnell has made his preference for Sasse's successor known. He has personally urged the outgoing Nebraska governor, Pete Ricketts, to seek the seat, calling him a "great choice."

"I've talked to Gov. Ricketts," McConnell said. "We're hoping that he will end up in the Senate. Exactly how that happens under Nebraska law is yet to be determined."

"If that were the way it worked out I think it'd be a smooth transition," McConnell added of Ricketts taking the spot.

Ricketts said in a statement that he would leave the appointment decision to the next governor but didn't express whether he had interest in seeking the seat.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waits to be sworn-in with his wife Elaine Chao, then-Secretary of Transportation, at the US Capitol on January 3, 2021.

Warning to Biden

But if Republicans take back the Senate, McConnell would find himself again as majority leader in opposition to a Democratic President -- as he was with then-President Barack Obama after the 2014 midterms.

In a career-defining move already being felt across American society, McConnell took the unprecedented step and refused in 2016 to hold a vote on Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, keeping open the seat for more than a year and allowing Trump to shift the balance of the court markedly to the right with the selection of conservative Neil Gorsuch.

In the interview, McConnell declined to say if he would even consider holding a vote on a Biden Supreme Court nominee should a vacancy arise next year in a GOP majority. Instead, he warned that Biden must talk to Republicans as he goes about making any number of executive and judicial branch appointments.

"Many of the appointments the President has made during the first two years have been quite extreme," McConnell said. "I'm not just talking about judges. I'm talking about the boards and commissions. And I think our view would be on appointments that we need to talk about it more and maybe have some recommendations to make ourselves before going down that path."

McConnell said Republicans and the White House "need to talk about appointments, rather than just reacting to them."

If Republicans take back the majority, McConnell has contended that they would "look for things within the 40-yard-line." But that proposition will be quickly put to the test, with some House Republicans already talking about potentially impeaching Biden and launching an inquiry against his secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas.

The GOP leader would not say if he believes House Republicans should tamp down that impeachment talk.

"I don't have any advice to give the House Republicans," he said, instead arguing that a GOP majority would turn Biden into a moderate.

But even as he and Biden cut fiscal deals in the Obama presidency, and much was said about their close relationship, the two barely talk, with McConnell saying: "I don't even remember" the last time they spoke. "It's been a while."

Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, speaks late last month during a new conference following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

McConnell in the 50-50 Senate

During this Congress, the longest period of a 50-50 Senate in the nation's history, McConnell has battled party-line Democratic efforts to pass their Covid-19 relief legislation and the climate-and-health law, but he's had had a hand in some of the biggest bipartisan achievements of Biden's time in office. He endorsed a major infrastructure law, the first gun violence legislation in a generation and a measure to bolster production of semi-conductor chips -- all issues that put him at odds with a majority of his conference, House Republican leaders and Trump himself.

Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, said "yes" he had concerns with the GOP leader's positions on those issues.

"Can you recall any Democrat has ever voted on a Republican proposal?" Braun asked, while also criticizing the GOP leader for not putting forward an election-year agenda for Republicans to discuss on the campaign trail.

"I think if you're going to appeal to independents, and they hold the political power in this country, they want something more than 'I'll tell you after the election,' " Braun said.

McConnell contends that even when he was majority leader, he didn't ascribe to the notion that every bill must be supported by a majority of Senate Republicans before he put it on the floor. And when Obama was President, he cut three fiscal deals with Biden -- even though it got pushback from many in his party.

"I never think it's to the advantage of the country or my party to be perceived as unwilling to do anything at all," McConnell said in defending his approach.

Getting back to the majority and setting the agenda would require a one-seat net pickup, but that has proven to be an enormous challenge given the difficult Senate map his party faces -- despite the favorable midterm environment for the GOP.

By the end of the cycle, McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund will have spent $209 million in ads across the country, with its affiliated nonprofit group, One Nation, spending another $71 million, according to data from AdImpact.

"He has raised the overwhelming amount of money that is supporting Republican candidates across the country," Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said. "He has done his job."

In the final weeks of the campaign, his group has not opted to spend sizable sums to bolster GOP candidate Blake Masters in Arizona, though McConnell contends that is the result of a discussion over "resource allocation" with a major Republican donor, Peter Thiel, and his outside group, looking at that race instead. Masters, he said, has a "good chance of winning."

"I've got a lot of bases to cover," he said, pointing to the key battleground states across the map.

"Many of these general election campaigns have been woefully underfunded, not because of the NRSC, but because of the candidates' campaigns themselves," McConnell said. "And we certainly -- SLF has certainly -- carried the lion's share of load."

CNN's Melanie Zanona, Ted Barrett, Morgan Rimmer and David Wright contributed to this report.