McConnell Wins Tough Race on Road to Majority Leadership

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 has been waiting for this moment for a long time. The Kentucky Republican survived one of the most difficult elections of his 30-year Senate career and is positioned to become the next majority leader.

McConnell, 72, was projected the winner over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35, by the Associated Press. Grimes conceded the race about an hour after all the polls closed in the state.

After being introduced by his wife and former U.S. Labor Department Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell said “every election is a job interview -- in this case, a very long one.” Fellow Kentuckian and Senate Republican Rand Paul also attended the victory party.

Polls conducted in the final weeks of the campaign showed McConnell, who has led Senate Republicans since 2007, with a widening advantage in a race that until then had been neck-and-neck.

“Mitch McConnell is like solid rock: dull and tough,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. His resiliency comes in part because he “excels at inside baseball, which is what you need in a majority leader.”

For Democrats, McConnell was this year’s highest-profile Senate target. The party for a decade has been 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.

Expensive Contest

As a result, the Kentucky Senate race was among the most expensive in the U.S., attracting $33.4 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.

Of that, $16.8 million has been spent against Grimes and $10.3 million against McConnell. As of Oct. 15, McConnell had spent $25.1 million in his campaign account, compared with $15.3 million for Grimes, according to the group. Part of that difference is because McConnell faced a Tea Party-backed primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to gain control of the Senate. They’ve picked up two seats with the victories of Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia and Tom Cotton in Arkansas, according to the Associated Press.

Obama Link

McConnell, who has pledged to chip away at the 2010 health-care law and combat government efforts to curb carbon emissions, made his quest to take over the majority leader post a centerpiece of his campaign. He cast himself as the ultimate political insider, even though that ran counter to his party’s anti-Washington theme.

In campaign events and ads, he sought to tie Grimes to President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Kentucky and twice lost the state by double digits.

In his acceptance speech tonight, McConnell said he and Obama have “an obligation to work together” on issues where they can agree.

McConnell’s campaign gained ground on Oct. 13 when Grimes refused to disclose -- during the race’s single debate -- whether she voted for Obama, saying she didn’t want to “compromise a constitutional right” to privacy at the voting booth.

Pulled Ads

The next day the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, pulled its television ads in the state. The group reversed course a week later and re-launched its ad campaign to promote Grimes.

For her part, Grimes cast McConnell as integral to Washington gridlock and dysfunction.

“His position hasn’t left this state any better off,” she told supporters at a rally yesterday in Louisville. “Leadership might be worth something if Mitch McConnell wasn’t up for sale to the highest bidder.”

McConnell sought to turn Grimes’s appeal as a fresh candidate against her, suggesting that his opponent was a rookie who wouldn’t be as effective in Washington as he is. Though Grimes has been Kentucky’s secretary of state since 2012, this was her first bid for national office.

Grimes lost despite financial support from prominent Democrats -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- and campaigning by former President Bill Clinton, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and other national party figures.

While his campaign finished strong, McConnell stumbled early on, contributing to the notion that he was vulnerable to a challenge.

Basketball Gaffe

His campaign drew ridicule for mistakenly using footage of Duke’s men’s basketball team, rather than the University of Kentucky, in a campaign ad.

And in an April interview with a local newspaper, McConnell’s suggestion that it was the state government’s responsibility -- not his -- to bring jobs to Kentucky became fodder for Democratic attacks.

“No one should ever underestimate Senator McConnell when it comes to an election battle,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “He and his team are as good as they come.”

Unlike predecessors such as Bob Dole, McConnell, who once said his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, has never aspired to higher office than majority leader.

Math ‘Flipped’

Still, if he becomes majority leader, his tenure could be short-lived. In 2016, Republicans will be defending at least 22 seats compared with as few as nine for Democrats.

Combined with the 2016 presidential aspirations of Tea-Party backed members of his caucus -- Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida -- that creates some difficult crosscurrents for McConnell.

“He’s got a handful of Republicans wanting to run for president,” Manley said. “But the math is flipped in 2016 -- far more Republicans are up than Democrats.”

Those electoral realities could make it difficult for McConnell to make good on his pledge to return the Senate to the days where amendments were routinely allowed to legislation, committees were more involved in crafting bills, and spending measures were considered on an individual basis.

“You’ll see him try to return the Senate to the way it was when it worked pretty well,” said former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who was the chamber’s second-ranking Republican before retiring from Congress in 2013. “It restores rights to the minority. Both Democrats and Republicans are hungry for that.”

Rules Change

McConnell hasn’t said whether he’ll seek to undo a rules change that Reid made last year stripping the minority party of the power to block all nominees except Supreme Court justices.

McConnell also will have to decide whether he wants to modify the role as chief Republican dealmaker that he’s played since the party took control of the House in 2010.

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

He and Vice President Joe 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 16-day partial government shutdown of 2013.

During the primary contest, he sought to curry favor with the Tea Party, a group of Republicans who have viewed him with skepticism. 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.

“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.’

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.