McConnell relishes role as 2020 debate villain

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout MORE (R-Ky.) is reveling in being the antagonist of the 2020 Democratic debates.

Though not on the White House ticket, the GOP leader loomed large as the other primary target for presidential candidates and the debate moderators, who brought up McConnell by name a combined 12 times Wednesday evening.

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Several candidates took shots at the Senate GOP leader, who is up for reelection next year, during the first debate. With four senators — and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE, who worked with McConnell for decades in the Senate — taking the stage Thursday night, McConnell is likely to revive his role as villain.

The Kentucky Republican even took time to discuss his unexpected appearance in the debate multiple times with reporters on Thursday.

With the caveat that he was watching the Nationals baseball game and not the debate, McConnell chuckled when asked about becoming the “boogeyman,” before adding that he “couldn’t have been happier” about emerging as a wedge issue in the Democratic debates.

“I understand that my sin is that I’ve been stopping left wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionist to the Supreme Court. If that’s my sin, I plead guilty. I was thrilled to dominate the discussion last night,” McConnell said during a press conference.

McConnell also granted a rare hallway interview to a small group of reporters on Thursday morning, teasing his amusement about being brought up during the debates.

When asked about the Democratic criticism, he responded: “I love it.”

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McConnell’s name was first mentioned by MSNBC’s Chuck ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddSanders campaign vents frustration with media, polls Megan Rapinoe reveals what she'd say to fans who are Trump supporters Rapinoe: Trump's message divides 'so he can conquer' MORE when he asked Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Schumer throws support behind bill to study reparations MORE (D-N.J.) if he had a plan to deal with McConnell if the Republican is still majority leader in 2021. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE (D-Mass.), in particular, drew applause for quickly responding “I do,” when asked the same question.

In other instances, Democratic candidates brought him up without prompting. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeNew Trump rules prompt Planned Parenthood to forgo federal funds The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Oregon to require schools to teach about Holocaust MORE, asked about combating climate change, said his first step is “taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell,” even though presidents don’t have the authority to make those changes.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKlobuchar fundraises for McConnell challenger: 'Two Amys are better than one' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet MORE (Minn.), the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, also accused McConnell of blocking election security legislation as she tried to squeeze in the issue ahead of a commercial break. And Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John Ryan2020 Democrats call Trump's tweets about female Democrats racist 3 reasons billionaire activist Tom Steyer is running for president ProPublica to fund reporter to cover Youngstown, Ohio, after newspaper folds MORE (D-Ohio) pivoted from a question on climate change to say, “You want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working-class party.”

It’s hardly the first time McConnell has leaned in to criticism from his political opponents. He’s known for framing cartoons that lampoon or deride him and hanging them in his office. After then-GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship railed against the GOP leader and nicknamed him “Cocaine Mitch,” McConnell was answering his phone using the moniker.

McConnell and his team got the last laugh, though. When Blankenship lost, after McConnell-aligned outside groups spent heavily against him, the GOP leader’s campaign quickly blasted out a photo of McConnell’s face seemingly edited on the body of a character from one of the "Narcos" advertisements surrounded by a cloud of what appeared to be cocaine.

The GOP leader’s team and conservative allies on Twitter quickly sought to capitalize off his name being dropped during the debate. His campaign blasted out fundraising links through social media, as well as GIFs of McConnell smiling in response to Warren saying she had a plan for how to handle him. Another GOP account said McConnell appeared to be living “rent free” inside Warren’s head.

Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser and McConnell’s former chief of staff, predicted that Democratic contenders appearing in Thursday’s debate have “been rehearsing their Mitch McConnell answer in the mirror all afternoon following the lefty handwringing over last night’s performance.”

The GOP leader’s embrace as chief foe for White House contenders comes as McConnell is increasingly turning his attention to 2020, when he is up for reelection, though he’s yet to field a serious Democratic or primary challenger.

He reiterated Thursday that he believes the election will be a referendum on a myriad of progressive issues including the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and packing the Supreme Court.

“I think [Sen.] Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries The hidden connection between immigration and health care: Our long-term care crisis Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE [I-Vt.] was correct when he said he’s won the argument. He may not win the election, but I think he’s won the argument. So whether you do or don’t like the president, it’s not the only thing that’s going to be on the ballot next year,” McConnell said. “The other thing that’s going to be on the ballot is do you really want to turn America into a socialist country? … They want to have a big debate about that and I do too.”

With control of the White House and Congress on the line in 2020, McConnell is positioning himself and his caucus to be a fail-safe for Republicans if President Trump loses and Republicans fail to take back the House.

Speaking during events in Kentucky earlier this year, he pledged that he would be the “grim reaper” for progressive proposals.

"If I'm still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper," McConnell said at one of the events. "I guarantee you that if I'm the last man standing and I'm still the majority leader, it ain't happening."

It’s a position that he and his top allies believe will serve them well as they fight to keep control of the Senate. Though Republicans are defending almost two dozen seats, compared to 12 for Democrats, most of them are in solidly Republican states where leaning into the idea of the Senate being a GOP firewall could pay political dividends.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report White House abruptly cancels Trump meeting with GOP leaders McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, held up a copy of The New York Times, whose headline for a story on the debate was “Democrats split on how far left to nudge nation,” as an example that some of the ideas being discussed are “so wacky.”

“I think people want a guardrail, I think they want a firewall against really crazy ideas,” Thune said. “I just think they are all racing to the left … and I think that’s going to increasingly get them at odds with the middle of the country.”

“From our standpoint,” Thune added, referring to the Senate GOP caucus, “I think people are going to want some adults in the room, and I think the Senate represents that.”