Did Mitch McConnell Recruit His Opponent?

Did Mitch McConnell Recruit His Opponent?
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Did Mitch McConnell Recruit His Opponent?
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
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Since his last race for reelection in 2014, Sen. Mitch McConnell cemented his pariah status among Democrats with two words: Merrick Garland. He is now what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once was to Republicans before The Squad became an even better magnet for Republican fundraising. The Grim Reaper, Moscow Mitch -- he’s the greatest political villain to Democrats after Donald Trump, and yet they may have given him the opponent of his dreams. 

It appears that once again McConnell‘s black magic could be at work here. He’s got a Democrat running against him who was strong enough to commit the establishment to go all in but is definitely too weak to threaten him. 

Amy McGrath was recruited by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer because of 

her boffo resume -- a retired Marine pilot, she came close in 2018 to unseating a GOP incumbent in Kentucky’s 6th District who had won by 22 points in 2016. During her congressional run she raised $8.5 million, and soon after she entered the 2020 Senate race $7 million poured into her campaign -- a clear and intimidating signal to anyone else considering the primary race to take on McConnell. 

But just three months later, it’s clear McGrath is a lemon.  Her campaign has racked up flip-flops, flubs and controversies faster than McConnell can celebrate them, and that should alarm Democrats.

McGrath’s powerful ad, in which she criticized McConnell for failing coal miners, fell apart last week when two of the men shown in a reenactment of a 10-hour bus trip to Washington, D.C., claimed they were misled about the context of the ad they thought was for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. A cease-and-desist letter stated the men were “shocked and outraged,” according to the Lexington Herald Leader, to see themselves in “a political attack ad that doesn’t reflect their personal feelings or beliefs.” Said their lawyer, Christopher Thacker: “It is simply wrong for the McGrath campaign to use individual miners suffering from black lung disease as political pawns without their permission or consent.”

The McGrath camp disputed Thacker’s account by claiming not only that the men signed release forms but had signed up to receive hats and T-shirts from the McGrath for Senate campaign. The article notes, however, that the consent forms they signed were for promotional materials to be used by an ad agency and McGrath’s campaign wasn’t mentioned on the forms. 

The challenger began bungling her campaign on day one. In her announcement video McGrath tells the compelling story of writing letters to McConnell, and other members of the state delegation, when she was 13 about her desire to fly fighter jets in combat and not receiving any response. “I’ve often wondered how many other people did Mitch McConnell never take the time to write back or even think about,” she said in the video. The video also showed four other McConnell constituents writing letters to him. The problem was their letters turned up at the senator’s Louisville office days later, postmarked June 27, 2019, sent the same day they made the video.

Within days she appeared on MSNBC and blamed McConnell for not helping Trump “drain the swamp.” Kentucky liberals howled at McGrath’s pathetic attempt to score points against McConnell while trying to keep Trump voters in the fold. 

Then she said she “probably” would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. While he had taken “far-right stances,” she said, “there was nothing in his record that would disqualify him in any way.” That wasn’t what she said last year. After Christine Blasey Ford testified against Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing, McGrath criticized him on Facebook as someone “against women’s reproductive rights, worker’s rights, consumer protections, and will be among the most partisan people ever considered for the Court.” When faced with a backlash about her new assessment of Kavanaugh, McGrath changed her mind again, saying, “Upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no.” She added, “I know I disappointed many today with my initial answer. … I will make mistakes and I will always own up to them.” 

Soon afterward, McGrath went on CNN, ostensibly to clean things up, but she managed to dig more deeply into the hole she’d put herself in. Her response, when Jake Tapper asked why she compared the election of President Trump to the 9/11 attacks, was: “Well, what I was talking about was the fact that, you know, nobody really expected President Trump to win. And I was talking also about the entire 2016 cycle. Many of us were spurred into action by what happened in 2016, the labeling of each other as 'They’re all Communist or they're all this or they're all that.' And the fake news, the divisiveness of our country was something I had never seen before.”

It got worse as she rambled on. 

“My husband is a Republican. I’m a Democrat,” she said. “We took stock of that after the election and we said, 'Where are we as a country?' And that way, it was the same thing for me, [I] was looking at that tragic event in taking stock of: 'Where are we as a country?' So that's what I was saying, and I can see why, you know, folks might be upset about that. But that is what I was saying." She finished the interview by telling Tapper, “Great to have you,” and pro-Mitch Twitter accounts lit up in unadulterated glee. 

These aren’t rookie mistakes -- these are the doings of a clueless candidate who doesn’t remotely know how much she doesn’t know. The state’s only Democrat in Congress was one of those willing to worry on the record to the Louisville Courier-Journal about her mistakes. Rep. John Yarmuth called flipping on Kavanaugh “pretty significant,” suggested a primary challenge would help McGrath, adding, “I hope she prepares a little better for the rest of the campaign. ... Whoever is going to face off against Mitch McConnell really needs to get their game in shape.”

Another prospect for Democrats, if the establishment can admit to the danger of supporting McGrath before voting takes place in May, is Mike Broihier, also a retired Marine but also a farmer and a journalist too. He’s lived in the Bluegrass State for 14 years so he’ll be tagged a carpetbagger. He’s also a first-time candidate, but it’s hard to imagine his political instincts are worse than McGrath’s. 

Steve Cox, a health care executive, has also entered the race but isn’t gaining traction. Some others may jump in, including popular radio host Matt Jones, author of a not-yet-released book “Mitch, Please! How Mitch McConnell Sold Out Kentucky (and America Too).” Jones, who recently lost his show “Hey Kentucky,” claims a top McGrath campaign official helped get him fired by Kentucky Sports Radio. The McGrath campaign, which Jones had criticized, denies any involvement. 

No matter how strong a candidate the Democrats field, the race is still McConnell’s to lose, despite the fact that his personal poll numbers make the majority leader the least popular senator in the country. In her congressional race, McGrath ran up good numbers in Lexington but Barr still won 17 of the district’s 19 counties, hardly a map changer. Kentucky went for Trump by 30 points in 2016, and according to FiveThirtyEight it is 23 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, so a Democratic presidential nominee isn’t likely to carry McGrath into the Senate next fall.

No matter who wins the White House in 2020, Democrats can’t change laws or confirm judges if they don’t recapture the majority in the Senate, and if McConnell remains majority leader. They should redirect their precious resources to campaigns that can win. 

Sure, McGrath is going to own up to all those mistakes, but they look like they’ve already cost the Democrats a lot of money. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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