Democrats look to demonize GOP leader

Democrats want to flip the script on Republicans by using Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Election security to take back seat at Mueller hearing McConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch MORE (R-Ky.) as the poster boy for next year’s congressional elections.

They think they can use the self-described “Grim Reaper” in swing races in the same way Republicans have demonized Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Mnuchin reach 'near-final agreement' on budget, debt ceiling Wendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas Steyer calls on Pelosi to cancel 'six-week vacation' for Congress MORE (D-Calif.)  in previous election years.

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McConnell has often flown below the public’s radar with his low-key demeanor, but after two bruising Supreme Court fights over the past three years and the recent accumulation of House-passed bills going nowhere in the Senate, Democrats say using McConnell as a rallying banner can be part of a winning strategy.

“You’ve seen the polls, his numbers are in the tank. I think it can be effective,” Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi looks to squash fight with progressives MORE (D-Mont.), a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said of tying Republican Senate candidates to McConnell next year.

McConnell’s approval rating is the lowest of any congressional leader, standing at only 25 percent, according to a Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll survey published earlier this year, and 36 percent in his home state of Kentucky, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted during the first quarter of 2019.

Democrats argue McConnell has largely shut down legislative activity in the Senate, and that point should be raised as an argument against GOP incumbents like Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report MORE (Maine), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE (Colo.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRepublicans scramble to contain Trump fallout McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist MORE (N.C.), who have tried to cultivate independent brands ahead of their 2020 races.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” Tester added. “We haven’t really voted. We haven’t debated on hardly anything. We haven’t voted on much other than on judges and a few [executive branch] noms.”

Making a Senate or House race a referendum on the Democratic leader — whether former Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) in the early 2000s, former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller MORE  (Nev.) during the Obama years or Pelosi over the past decade — has been a go-to move in the GOP’s political playbook.

When Tester faced a tough reelection last year in a Republican-leaning state, his opponent Matt Rosendale — and surrogates such as Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump Jr.'s book, 'Triggered,' to be published in November Trump campaign selling branded plastic straws as alternative to 'liberal paper straws' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question MORE — talked about Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump says he will meet with Schumer 'ASAP' after border visit Dem senator describes 'overcrowded quarters,' 'harsh odor' at border facilities Top Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties MORE (D-N.Y.) as much if not more than they did Tester.

It’s a strategy Republicans have used over and over to divide moderate Democrats and swing voters.

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Now it’s Democrats who want to make McConnell a wedge issue to split Republican incumbents with independent reputations, such as Collins in Maine, from swing voters.

More than a year out from Election Day, they’re working overtime to portray McConnell as the poster boy for Washington gridlock.

The Ditch Mitch Fund, a Democratic-aligned group that is targeting McConnell for defeat in 2020, announced last week that it raised more than $1 million during this year’s second fundraising quarter.

McConnell, 77, will be running for his seventh Senate term in 2020.

Democrats say their mission is made easier by the fact that McConnell has embraced his role as a Senate roadblock, describing himself as the “Grim Reaper” of liberal legislation.

“He has embraced his ‘Grim Reaper’ image in a way that makes it pretty easy for Democrats to use that as a rallying cry in a campaign,” said a former Senate Democratic leadership aide.

“Because he’s been so effective at gridlock, he’s been a big part of driving the conversation on changing the way that Washington works that you’re seeing play out in the presidential primary,” the aide said, noting that McConnell and his tactics were a prominent point of discussion in the first Democratic presidential debate.

McConnell told reporters after the debate, where his name was invoked multiple times by the moderators and candidates, “I was thrilled to dominate the discussion.”

“I couldn’t have been happier about it,” he said of being such a source of frustration for White House hopefuls, many of whom have endorsed progressive proposals like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.

Asked about Democrats trying to make him a “boogeyman,” McConnell responded: “I understand that my sin is that I’ve been stopping left-wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court. If that’s my sin, I plead guilty.”

Democratic strategists acknowledge that painting McConnell as the main villain of the 2020 battle for the Senate will be made harder by the fact that he’s extremely cautious when speaking publicly and less likely to make gaffes than Reid or Pelosi.

For example, Republicans repeatedly hammered Democrats in past elections for Pelosi’s inartfully expressed statement that Congress had to pass ObamaCare in order to find out what was in it.

Schumer often highlights the backlog of House-passed bills and regularly criticizes McConnell for turning the Senate into a “legislative graveyard.”

A press release put out by Schumer’s office Friday introducing the weekly Democratic address by Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.) hit McConnell for burying Democrats’ Healthy MOM Act, which would guarantee affordable health care coverage to women during pregnancy.

“A graveyard in Leader McConnell’s Senate. No senator has been allowed to vote on one of their amendments for months. This is simply not how the Senate is supposed to be,” Schumer said on the floor shortly before the July 4 recess.

McConnell’s allies argue that Democrats’ attempts to pin congressional dysfunction on McConnell are pure politics and disingenuous.

“I’d like to hear anyone make the argument that McConnell isn’t one of the most effective legislative leaders in modern American history. Republicans know it, Democrats know it, and this brings us to a challenge so profound that it lends an air of unreality to the entire Democratic presidential primary,” conservative columnist David French wrote in the National Review after the Democratic debate.

Democrats have tried to highlight McConnell’s tight grip on the Senate floor by regularly asking for consent agreements to pass bills they believe have broad public support, such as the Election Security Act, which would provide for backup paper ballots and election security grants to states.

Republicans blocked an attempt by presidential candidate Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage MORE (D-Minn.) to call it up for a vote before the July 4 recess.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin Health care moves to center stage in Democratic primary fight MORE (D-Conn.), a Schumer ally, said, “I do think that people are going to ask questions why all this legislation goes to die in the Senate.”

Inactive legislation in the Senate sent over from the House includes a package of campaign fundraising, ethics and election reform provisions known as H.R. 1, expanded background checks for firearm sales, the Paycheck Fairness Act, a net neutrality bill and several measures addressing the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.

“Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans seem to care much more about the gun lobby, the insurance lobby and the oil lobby than they do about kids and consumers,” Murphy said. “People know that the House is trying and the Senate isn’t on a bunch of issues and the more that dynamic plays out, the more it matters for the elections.”