KENTUCKY DERBY JULY 22, 2013
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been having a rough couple of weeks—ever since an emboldened Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, declared in mid-July that he was willing to use the nuclear option to stop Republican filibusters of executive nominees. McConnell, the orchestrator of these endless blockades, offered Reid a raw deal in exchange for avoiding the nuclear option. He bet that he could hold his caucus together even if Reid rejected the deal, but not 12 hours after Reid did so, it was clear to most of Washington that McConnell had bet wrong. Senator John McCain, the morning that Reid was due to deploy the nuclear option, went around McConnell to negotiate a very plum deal for Democrats.
This brought back memories of other instances in which McConnell’s obstructionism was sufficiently extreme that members of his own party abandoned him. It raised questions about McConnell’s capacity to keep Republicans in line, period—after all, his caucus had allowed voting to proceed on items like the president’s gun control package; some number of them now appear open to tax increases to end sequester cuts. By the end of the week, whether McConnell had even known about McCain’s backdoor dealing was subject to question.
That is, McConnell is having a rough time in Washington. What measure of his troubles will follow him home to Kentucky—and to what extent will Kentuckians care about them? It’s not clear, but the news Friday, that a potential Tea Party challenger is preparing to enter the 2014 GOP primary, has made that a more pressing question. On the campaign trail, the minority leader has made his influence his biggest selling point. And now, at the height of McConnell's vulnerability, here comes an upstart to question whether he has any influence at all.
It's no secret that McConnell is not loved in Kentucky—a PPP poll in December found he had the lowest approval rating of any senator in the nation. For years, his leadership position has been just about the only thing making him palatable to the state’s political class. His likely challenger, Matt Bevin, 46, is an affable father of nine and a wealthy investor with an extensive record of charitable giving—including to a missionary center he endowed in memory of his daughter, who died at 17. The personally bloodless, politically ruthless McConnell looks pretty unattractive by comparison.1
More critically, though, McConnell’s rank and incumbency may not be hard for Bevin to cast as liabilities—and not just because Tea Partiers are instinctively suspicious of establishment members. For years, McConnell has used his position at the top of the GOP ladder to lard his home state with pork-barrel spending. Even though the right wing of his party spooked him into backing an earmark ban in 2010, McConnell’s takehome in 2012 was the second largest in the Senate.
McConnell knows his right flank is vulnerable. After Rand Paul beat his handpicked candidate in the 2010 primary, McConnell instantly allied himself with Paul—fundraising for him and silencing Republicans skeptical of the brash newcomer. As a Republican senate staffer told The New Republic's Julia Ioffe this spring, because Paul can give or withhold crucial conservative credibility, “the perception is McConnell fears him”—a striking fact given that the rest of the Kentucky GOP is afraid of McConnell.
But weaponizing McConnell’s incumbency will not be entirely straightforward for Bevin. As much as Kentuckians dislike McConnell, they tend to hate President Barack Obama, and as minority leader, McConnell’s tactical victories over the president’s agenda are myriad. McConnell has made this the major selling point of his 2014 reelection campaign, whereas in 2008, it was his ability to haul home pork. “That’s not popular these days. What he talks about now is his influence,” a longtime political observer of McConnell said.
It’s why questions raised about McConnell’s ability to wrangle his caucus, and therefore, to continue to frustrate Obama, may be so pertinent beyond the Beltway. McConnell, of course, already had a general-election challenger who is dwelling on his apparent impotence—Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state and a Democratic political scion with ties to the Clinton family. Grimes has been arguing that McConnell is weak since she entered the race early this summer, but as a Democrat in Kentucky, she has limited credibility. A good portion of McConnell’s strongest critics, my colleague Nate Cohn has pointed out, are conservatives—open to Grimes’s message, just not from her mouth. Plus, Grimes’s audience doesn’t experience a gag reflex at the thought of federal spending; she’s not going to make hay out of McConnell’s pork politics.
Bevin can articulate these things with far more believability, if for no other reason than because he will run as a Republican. If the old Tea Party take on incumbents, that they’re establishment-cozy, isn’t enough to defeat McConnell, the poison arrow could be the argument that he’s no longer running sufficient defense against Obama. (After all, having someone in the leadership, the observer said, has been the point, for voters and politicos, of putting up with McConnell all these years.) The moment certainly seems right for Bevin to make such a case. Relaying early chatter among Kentucky politicos, the political observer said that “[Republicans] don’t like the deal McCain made. But they see McConnell as having been unable to stop it.”
This isn’t to say that McConnell, who has a $15.4 million war chest at latest count, is an easy target. And while the Senate’s nullifier-in-chief may have lost control of his caucus, McConnell has so successfully written obstructionism into the Republican DNA that feats of compromise by McCain—even if they steal the spotlight—are bound to remain the exception, not the norm. Over the years, McConnell has likewise transformed politics in Kentucky. His obsessive fundraising and ferocious style of politics helped expedite Kentucky’s conversion into a red state. All this bespeaks a man who's not going down without a brutal fight. Expect McConnell to employ the same scorched-earth strategy to retain the seat he's held for nearly 30 years.
Molly Redden is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.