Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will come out of the Trump impeachment battle a winner. That may be his 2020 high point.
The shrewd Senate Republican leader, working with the White House, has convinced his Republican colleagues that the best politics is to stick together with Donald Trump. Even if he has to cave a little on not allowing witnesses — who could either further incriminate or exculpate the president — it’ll be largely cosmetic.
But the Kentucky Republican may turn out to be an asset for Democrats in the fall, as already competitive challengers against Republican incumbents are tying those incumbents to the Senate majority leader, not so much on impeachment but rather on his legislative role: rushing through right-wing judges and bottling up popular House-passed legislation, including crackdowns on rising drug prices, boosting the minimum wage, some campaign finance reform and pay equity for women.
On most of these issues, McConnell doesn’t want his half-dozen endangered incumbents to face a vote that big financial interests, always a primary McConnell priority, oppose. Thus, unlike the Republican campaigns against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a “San Francisco liberal,” the Democratic challengers believe these specifics give them an edge, and they’re seizing on it.
In Colorado, the Democrats’ leading candidate, John Hickenlooper, charges that drug prices are “crushing Colorado families,” references the House-passed bill to hold down those prices and links his opponent, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, to the Senate leader who’s holding up that bill and others.
In Maine, Democrat Sara Gideon assails Republican Sen. Susan Collins for going along with McConnell’s drive to “jam our nation’s courts with unqualified, anti-choice judges.” (The incumbent Maine Republican has opposed a handful of the 187 Trump-appointed judges who have been confirmed.)
Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield, citing her opponent, charges that “Joni Ernst and Mitch McConnell will stop at nothing” to defund Planned Parenthood.
In Texas, Democrat MJ Hegar even Tweeted a video of her opponent, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn, showing he’s “always running after Mitch McConnell … so I’m running against John Cornyn.” (Never mind that deputies usually trail after the leader.)
McConnell’s allies have said this is just typical political pablum and doesn’t faze the majority leader, as his focus is on running the Senate and keeping the majority, currently 53 to 47.
McConnell is adept at keeping this slim majority in line, blocking legislation and confirming judges now that doing so requires only a simple majority.
He’s not much interested in major legislation, and it’s a myth that he’s a Senate institutionalist in the same vein as his predecessors Mike Mansfield, Howard Baker, George Mitchell and Bob Dole, partisans who appreciated comity in the Senate and respect for fair protocol.
Despite spending half his life in the Senate — 35 years as a senator and several as an aide — he’s into power even at the expense of the institution. An illustration is when he refused to even allow a vote on former President Obama’s highly qualified Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, claiming — falsely — that it was tradition not to confirm high court nominees in a presidential election year.
McConnell has made clear — now that a Republican is in the White House — that if a vacancy on the high court occurs this year, he’ll try to push through any nomination.
The one slam that infuriated the 77-year-old Senate leader was Democrats calling him “Moscow Mitch” for holding up election security measures to guard against a repeat of Russian interference in the next election. Claiming he was a victim of “McCarthyism” smears, he capitulated and supported legislation.
There also are allegations of ethical transgressions involving his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, showing favoritism to her husband’s supporters in Kentucky.
That one doesn’t bother him so much, as his political calling card at home is using his power and connections for Kentucky.
That is even more necessary for him than most legislators, as he is not well liked at home after all these years. A reliable Democratic poll last year gave him a 57 percent to 31 percent negative rating, considerably worse than his junior Republican colleague, Rand Paul.
Some Democrats hope that Amy McGrath, a well-financed former Marine fighter pilot, might upset the lifetime politician. But no one runs tougher or meaner campaigns than Mitch McConnell; don’t be surprised if at some stage, the Marine fighter’s patriotism is questioned. Donald Trump, with whom McConnell shares a political marriage totally of convenience, carried the Bluegrass State by 30 points last time and will provide tailwinds this November.
But it won’t be a happy election evening for McConnell if he wins Kentucky but provides enough tailwinds for Democratic challengers elsewhere that he loses the majority — and his power as leader — in the Senate.
Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.