GOP leader embraces role as liberal foe for 2020

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 leaning hard into his role as a top progressive foe as he gears up for his reelection campaign and a battle for control of the Senate.

As the GOP leader turns his attention to 2020, he and top allies are touting his authority to block votes on measures such as "Medicare for All" and an election reform bill as a crucial reason for Republicans to hold on to their Senate majority.

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"I think his point is that as long as you have a Republican Senate … you are preventing any capacity to turn America into a Western European country. I mean, basically, they are the firewall against socialism," said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for McConnell.

He added that the Senate GOP leader uses "the tools that he has in his toolbox to prevent some of what he sees as the worst ideas."

The latest high-profile example came when McConnell, speaking at multiple events in Kentucky during Congress’s recent two-week recess, touted himself as the "Grim Reaper" of progressive policies.

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 TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE loses and Republicans fail to take back the House.

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

McConnell is juggling multiple priorities as he turns his attention to next year’s campaign. In addition to making the case for Republicans keeping control of the Senate, he’s also running for his seventh term in the chamber.

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Democrats are trying to recruit Amy McGrath, a former Marine veteran and fighter pilot, to challenge McConnell in the general election. But he’s faced primary challenges before, most notably in 2014 when businessman Matt Bevin, who is now the state’s governor, vied with McConnell for the Senate GOP nomination.

This time around, he’s heading into his reelection bid without the threat of a nasty intraparty fight.

"I think a lot of it is the fact that he’s playing offensive coordinator now instead of defensive coordinator," Holmes said. "It’s a lot easier for conservatives to appreciate how he’s helped President Trump implement his agenda, confirm judges."

But that isn’t stopping Republicans from touting their ability to block progressive proposals considered anathema to the GOP’s conservative base as crucial for him and his party holding on to the Senate.

McConnell’s allies seized on a quote from Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the progressive group Indivisible, who said that a Senate controlled by the GOP leader is "where progressive ideas go to die."

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), quipped that "Cocaine Mitch strikes again!"

A GOP leadership staffer blasted out the quote to reporters, adding that they "couldn’t have said it any better," while a McConnell aide added that the description of the Senate under McConnell was "100% right."

Asked Friday if McConnell would be talking more about comparing himself to the Grim Reaper when it comes to progressive policies or how he decides to respond to ideas he terms "socialism," a spokesman declined to comment beyond citing McConnell’s recess remarks and an op-ed McConnell penned in March criticizing the Green New Deal.

Much of McConnell’s larger strategy is to highlight his ability to block Democrats, including when he prevented former President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandDem senators demand GOP judicial group discloses donors John Legend: Republicans play to win, Biden plays to impress the media Biden says he opposes expanding the Supreme Court MORE, from getting a confirmation hearing or a vote. McConnell touted his decision and how it allowed Trump to fill the seat during a three-minute video that marked the official launch of his reelection bid this month.

And in a move that lit up conservative Twitter, his reelection campaign's 404 error page is a photo of Garland standing between Obama 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 at the White House along with the caption "Oops this page doesn't exist. But just in case, go donate and make sure it doesn't come back."

It’s not the first time McConnell and his team have tried to co-opt opponents’ attacks against the 77-year-old leader.

When then-GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship lost the West Virginia primary — after he spent months railing against McConnell, whom he called "Cocaine Mitch" — 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 "Cocaine Mitch" moniker has taken over the internet as an alter ego for the button-downed GOP leader, but Holmes said McConnell has "made a career" out of trying to flip negative attacks from opponents into positives.

"He understands that in this line of work, particularly at the level that he’s at, it comes with inherent criticism on a daily basis. And if you’re not comfortable with that, you’ve got to find a different line of work," Holmes said, recounting that around the time of the West Virginia primary, McConnell was answering his phone as "Cocaine Mitch."

Democrats seized on McConnell’s recess remarks Friday and blasted him for not taking up dozens of House-passed bills that are stalled in the Senate, including background check legislation and a wide-ranging ethics and election reform bill.

"The self-proclaimed 'grim reaper', Leader McConnell has turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard that hurts the Senate, hurts the middle class, and hurts the country," said Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants MORE (D-N.Y.).

Schumer’s revival of the infamous nickname comes as Republicans are touting themselves as the "firewall" between progressive policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which McConnell and his top allies call "socialism."

McConnell told reporters earlier this month that he saw the 2020 election as "referendum on socialism" and was urging GOP incumbents to make the argument in their races.

"Socialism has failed, yet Senate Democrats in 2020 have committed to running on the policies of higher taxes, bigger government, and socialist proposals," the NRSC’s Hunt said in a recent statement. "Voters know Republicans are committed to defending freedom and releasing opportunity so people can achieve the American Dream."

McConnell doubled down on that narrative during a recent speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he accused Democrats of trying to break the rules to pass major policy and political reforms, including expanding the Supreme Court.

"You’d better believe that my Republican colleagues and I are not about to let the fundamental traditions of our constitutional order crumble," he said, "because Brooklyn and the Bay Area are tired of playing by the rules."