The Three Campaigns of Mitch McConnell

The Three Campaigns of Mitch McConnell

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 7, 2013

Wedged between two challengers Saturday at a barbecue brawl in Fancy Farm -- site of a large political picnic in the Bluegrass State -- Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell asked voters for a sixth term this way: "We're not just choosing who's going to represent Kentucky in the Senate; we're going to decide who's going to run the Senate.”

McConnell will surely repeat that pitch many times over the months to come. With it, he succinctly outlines his three interwoven campaigns: win the primary, win re-election, and become the upper chamber’s majority leader.

He also underscores his current challenge of managing the GOP Senate caucus in a way that protects incumbents, pleases his right flank, and helps the party gain enough seats next year to reclaim control of the chamber and give McConnell Harry Reid’s job.

But first McConnell has to keep his own -- and he is in what may be the fight of his political life, with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes on his left and Tea Party conservative Matt Bevin on his right.

A pair of daunting fiscal obstacles -- approving a temporary budget resolution to fund the government and raising the debt ceiling -- await the Senate upon its return from summer recess in September and are sure to test the minority leader. Bevin is challenging McConnell to join a small group of conservatives, including fellow Kentucky senator (and Tea Party proponent) Rand Paul in pledging to defund the Affordable Care Act or else shut down the government. Though conservative Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina, along with pundits like Charles Krauthammer, have called the idea reckless and unachievable, the GOP leadership team is divided.

Bevin faces tall odds in taking on the minority leader, but he does serve as a nuisance for the incumbent in a campaign where Republicans would much rather focus solely on the Democratic challenger. Bevin accuses McConnell of running on nothing but clout -- which, he argues, hasn’t gotten much for conservatives. In an ad, he attacks McConnell for working with Democrats and Vice President Joe Biden on a fiscal cliff deal earlier this year that passed both chambers, and for debt ceiling increases.

Republicans say McConnell’s campaigns won’t get in the way of governance, pointing to immigration reform as an example. Believing his party had to do something to address the issue to be viable with Latino voters in the future, McConnell did not block a bipartisan, comprehensive reform bill earlier this summer. He didn’t vote for final passage, but said he hoped to get a bill from a conference of the two chambers that could pass. But Democrats say they don’t expect to see the dealmaker in McConnell emerge as long as he’s engaged in a re-election fight with the majority leadership at stake.

“His usual MO is to leave as few fingerprints as possible,” said Jim Manley, a former adviser to Harry Reid. “You’re going to have to use a bloodhound to find any sign of activity of Sen. McConnell.”

Republicans need to gain six spots to claim a majority, and that goal is within reach. The landscape appears favorable to the GOP -- and for McConnell, the chance of leading the Senate seems as close as ever.

The Kentucky lawmaker is a strategist at heart. He chaired the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee twice: in 1998 and 2000, when Republicans controlled the upper chamber. He has been in the Senate for nearly three decades, and is one of the old bulls who slowly worked his way into leadership. But he has also witnessed friends and colleagues (like Bob Bennett of Utah) forced out of office by a more conservative member of his own party.

McConnell wouldn’t be in his position without political savvy. But former aides say his interest and expertise in Senate races goes beyond what is typical and required of a party leader -- it’s keen and almost obsessive. He is in tune with each contest, can see around corners, and offers tough advice.

It’s no secret McConnell wants to be majority leader, and it’s easy to understand why. But it’s also difficult to be in his current position.

First, as leader of the minority, he has little control over what the chamber takes up or over any of the committees. “The problem Republicans have is, they’re subject to the whims of Harry Reid,” says one former GOP aide. “You’re forced to deal with the hand you’re given.” But McConnell can use that disadvantage in making his case with Kentucky voters, as he did over the weekend: “Here’s the choice: Is the Senate going to be run by a Nevada yes-man for Barack Obama who believes coal makes you sick or the guy you’re looking at?”

“McConnell’s position will enable him to draw a sharper contrast between him[self] and Reid as leader,” the aide said.

But he is often wedged between a rock and a hard place. “If he makes decisions that frame him as a responsible adult trying to get things done, he gets hit from right,” says a Democratic strategist and former Senate aide. “If he goes along with more extreme elements of his caucus, then he is going to have a hard time making the pitch to general election voters he is right person for the job.”

The defunding of Obamacare is an example. “If you’re McConnell, and the government shuts down and you’re in election for your life … do you really want to go in front of general election voters as the leader of the party that shut down the government over the law?” the aide said. Some conservatives and outside groups would argue that voters in states like Kentucky so dislike the law that Obama would be blamed for a shutdown if he didn’t agree to defund it. But making that case theoretically and standing your ground when it happens are two different things.

Both Republicans supporting McConnell and Democrats hoping to defeat him laugh at the notion that he is not conservative. “Everyone knows where Mitch McConnell stands on Obamacare,” said the GOP aide.

Indeed, McConnell has been opposed to anything related to Barack Obama even before he began his presidency, infamously plotting on inauguration night in 2009 to “make Obama a one-term president.”

Democrats call McConnell “the Guardian of Gridlock,” and see his race as a chance to not only challenge the top Republican in the Senate but also to spook voters out of electing more GOP candidates and thus making McConnell majority leader. “This a guy who, from the first day Obama was sworn in, has done everything he can to grind the Senate to a halt to advance his own partisan gains,” said Manley, Reid’s former adviser. “The only thing he wants in life is to be the majority leader of the Senate, and he wants the power that goes along with it.”

But being majority leader would also be the best way to thwart Obama. With Republicans likely to retain hold of the House, a GOP-led Senate would complete their check against the administration. But getting there could be a climb. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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