McConnell: I’m the Ultimate Insider

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signals to supporters at the Fancy Farm picnic August 2, 2014 in Fancy Farm, Kentucky. With today's annual Fancy Farm picnic, a Kentucky political tradition, recent polls show McConnell and the Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes in a virtual tie.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell once said his goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Nowadays, he boasts about how often he negotiates with Obama’s vice president as evidence of his influence in Washington.

“I was with Joe Biden again,” McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky, said at a recent candidate forum, recounting his role helping resolve a fiscal crisis in 2012. “The only deals that have been made on a bipartisan basis, I brokered,” he said. “Every one of them.”

The man poised to run the Senate if Republicans win control in November is making an argument that runs counter to his party’s anti-government mood: I’m the ultimate insider.

He may have no choice. McConnell’s Democratic opponent says he’s the cause of the gridlock in the capital. So he has to convince voters that his three decades of Senate experience make him the solution, not the problem.

“As a Senate Republican leader, it’s very difficult to run away from Washington,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a onetime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. “He can make arguments as to what he’s done to stop bad things from happening.”

It’s not an easy sell. McConnell, 72, trailed Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35, by two points in a Bluegrass poll released this week, though he has led in most other surveys.

Common Denominator

“The common denominator for the problems we’re facing, it’s Mitch McConnell,” Grimes said at the same candidate forum in August at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s headquarters in Louisville. “He’s the reason the mess exists.”

McConnell has tried to link Grimes to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the state, and suggest that his opponent is a rookie who wouldn’t be as effective in Washington as he is. Grimes has been Kentucky’s secretary of state since 2012, and it’s her first elective office.

Recent polls suggest that Grimes is “in striking distance but still a little behind,” said D. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “There’s probably been some returning to the fold among moderate Democratic voters in the state,” said Voss.

Government Shutdown

In the past four years, the U.S. government partially shut down once and almost breached the debt ceiling twice. Each time, McConnell tells voters, he was one of the people who helped prevent calamity.

He and Biden worked together to raise the federal debt limit in 2011. Then, in a late-night phone call in December 2012, the two locked down key aspects of an agreement that Congress passed in a New Year’s Day vote, including a $5 million estate-tax exemption.

McConnell also played a major role in ending the partial government shutdown of 2013.

Embracing his status as a Washington insider carries risks as an anti-incumbency sentiment grows nationwide. Just 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, a Gallup Poll conducted Sept. 4-7 showed.

This isn’t the first time McConnell has been something of an outlier in his own party. When the small-government Tea Party movement in 2010 sought to end congressional earmarking -- spending that lawmakers personally direct toward home-state projects -- McConnell first opposed the effort. He said halting earmarks wouldn’t cut spending, just redirect it elsewhere.

He later changed his mind and voted to ban the practice.

$110 Million

In the decade before earmarks were prohibited, McConnell had secured $110 million for projects named for him or his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, according to a March study by Politico. They included a park in Bowling Green, a distance-learning center at the University of Kentucky and a pedestrian plaza on the banks of the Ohio River.

Some Tea Party leaders in Kentucky say they’ll back McConnell over Grimes, albeit grudgingly. Frank Simon, director of the Freedom’s Heritage Forum PAC, which seeks limited government and lower taxes, said the group -- which supported Tea Party-backed Matt Bevin during the Republican primary -- would soon endorse the McConnell.

“He’s not perfect, but I think he’s a lot better than Alison Grimes,” Simon said. “Everything in politics is the lesser of two evils.”

During the primary contest, McConnell sought to curry favor with the Tea Party. He toted a rifle on stage at the start of his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March. In January, he told the Tea Party News Network that he was “a big fan” of the movement.

‘Con Game’

“We will fight tooth and nail for conservative reforms that put this country back on track,” McConnell said at CPAC. “The greatest con game in modern American politics is the idea that more government is good for the little guy.”

Those efforts to ensure his political survival are a central part of Republicans’ aim to win control of the Senate. The party needs a net gain of at least six seats to take over the majority in the 100-member chamber. A loss in Kentucky would dim those prospects.

For Democrats, McConnell is this year’s highest-profile Senate target. The party is eager to avenge Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s 2004 defeat by Republican John Thune of South Dakota, now the chamber’s third-ranking Republican.

As a result, the Kentucky Senate race is among the most expensive in the U.S., attracting $24.1 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. Of that, $12.9 million has been spent against Grimes and $6.7 million against McConnell. As of June 30, McConnell had $9.8 million in his campaign account, compared with $6.2 million for Grimes, according to the group.

Obama Referendum

Even as he pushes his insider status, McConnell is trying to frame the race as a referendum on Obama and his policies.

It’s not a new theme for the five-term senator. In October 2010, he told an interviewer, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Obama twice lost Kentucky by double-digit margins, and two polls last month showed that almost two-thirds of Kentucky voters disapprove of the president’s job performance.

“Opinions of Mitch McConnell have solidified, and his saving grace could be that he gets to run for re-election in Kentucky, where the president is incredibly unpopular,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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