Democrats across the country have long seen Mitch McConnell as the boogeyman. He is known for his ruthlessness, from not taking up legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House and prioritizing the federal judiciary. But who is Mitch McConnell and Mitch McConnell and what are the Democrats’ odds of defeating him this year?
McConnell’s early years
Mitch McConnell’s career in politics goes all the way back to the 1970s, when he worked in the Justice Department in the Ford Administration — his colleagues there included Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. He returned home to Kentucky and was elected Judge/Executive of Jefferson County, which was the top political office in the county at that time. According to his memoir, The Long Game, he was a delegate for California Gov. Ronald Reagan at the 1980 Republican National Convention. He was re-elected as Judge/Executive in 1981 and occupied the office until his election to the U.S. Senate.
McConnell in the Senate
McConnell ran for U.S. Senate in 1984, challenging Democratic incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston. The result was close; McConnell defeated Huddleston by about 3,000 votes after all the votes were tabulated; though Reagan was carrying Kentucky with 60% that year, McConnell was the first Republican to win a state-level race there since 1968. McConnell ran ads throughout the campaign that mocked Huddleston’s low attendance record in the Senate — memorably, his ads featured bloodhounds trying to track down Huddleston.
McConnell was seen by many as a pragmatist in his early days. At the time, the Almanac of American Politics speculated that he’d likely be a Republican in the mold of Tennessee’s Howard Baker — in other words, an non-ideological dealmaker. In fact, McConnell is something of an expert on his state’s most famous son: Henry Clay, who was known as the “Great Compromiser.” According to a biographer, he was praised by feminists for supporting abortion rights and was supported by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the country. But over time, he began shifting to the right. In a reversal of its earlier assessment, by the 1990s, the Almanac began to characterize McConnell as one of the most partisan Republicans in the Senate.
His ascension into Republican leadership began in 1997, when he chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group that is tasked with protecting and expanding the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Following his time as NRSC chairman, he became the Majority Whip in the Senate. In 2006, then-Majority Leader Bill Frist retired — initially elected in 1994, he pledged to only serve to two terms, and stuck to that promise. Frist’s retirement would have normally made McConnell well-positioned to become Majority Leader, but with the Bush administration’s unpopularity, Democrats flipped the Senate. Instead, in a unanimous vote, the Republican caucus elected McConnell to be Minority Leader.
Even before his time in leadership, McConnell emerged as a leading opponent of campaign finance reform. He sums up, “Spending is speech. That is the law.” Notably, he opposed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act, which was aimed to end ‘soft money’ contributions to campaigns.
McConnell during the Obama Administration
McConnell became both a high-profile and controversial figure during the Obama administration. Some Democrats accused him of engaging of obstructionism, citing his frequent use of the filibuster to delay Obama’s nominations. He used to filibuster so frequently that Senate Democrats ended the filibuster for all judicial nominations, except for the Supreme Court, in 2013. Like much of his caucus, he opposed the nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. At times, he worked across the aisle, though. In 2011, he brokered a debt deal, along with then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Just as the 2006 midterms prevented McConnell from becoming Majority Leader, eight years later, the Republicans picked up nine Senate seats in the 2014 midterms, and McConnell finally got the job. Not surprisingly, as Leader, McConnell has prioritized the judiciary. In what McConnell calls one of his “proudest moments”, he refused to take up the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, who President Obama nominated following the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, in early 2016. And according to the New York Times, the final two years of Obama’s presidency saw 18 of his district court nominees and 1 appellate court nominee confirmed by the Senate — the lowest number since Harry Truman. For comparison, Reagan’s final two years saw 66 of his district court nominees and 15 appellate court nominees confirmed in his final two years as President. Bill Clinton saw 57 and 13 confirmed in his final two years and George W. Bush saw 58 and 13.
McConnell during the Trump Administration
In the 2016 election, McConnell originally supported his fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But he endorsed presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump following Paul’s exit from the race, though he did so with reservations. Despite heated criticism for blocking Judge Garland’s nomination in 2016, McConnell’s gamble payed off in spades: Trump won the presidency, putting the Republicans in a position to fill that vacancy. Not long after Trump’s inauguration, he nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, who was eventually confirmed. But even with control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, not all Republican priorities passed. After running against President Obama’s 2010 healthcare law since it was enacted, the GOP suffered a stinging defeat in the summer of 2017, when the late Sen. John McCain gave a famous “thumbs down” on its repeal. Still, later in 2017, McConnell helped pass a sweeping GOP tax reform bill.
In 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement opened another seat on the Supreme Court. Trump nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who managed to survive a contentious and rocky confirmation process. That court fight evolved into a focal point of the 2018 midterms. For Senate Republicans — who were on the offense in several red states — it seemed to play dividends, as it seemed to motivate turnout in conservative states. Republicans expanded their majority by ousting Democratic incumbents in Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana and, in something of a fluke, Florida. Like any other friendship, Trump and McConnell have had their triumphs and setbacks — but they maintain a good working relationship.
Democratic campaigns against Mitch McConnell
Democrats have long seen McConnell has beatable but have always come up short in their bids to oust him; though often not especially popular at home in Kentucky, he’s proved resilient. In 2008, amidst a national blue wave, Democrats targeted him, but he held on 53%-47%. His most recent campaign was during the 2014 midterm elections. In the primary, he faced a primary challenge from conservative businessman Matt Bevin — who would go on to serve a term as governor — but easily won the primary. In the general election, he had well-funded opposition in then-Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell’s main line of attack against Grimes: she would be a rubber stamp for Barack Obama, who was unpopular in the state. Grimes refused to say whether she voted for him. In the end, McConnell defeated Grimes by nearly 16 percentage points, and he was promoted to Senate Majority Leader.
This cycle, McConnell is being challenged by Democrat Amy McGrath, a Marine Corps veteran who unsuccessfully ran for Kentucky’s 6th District in the 2018 midterm elections. McGrath emerged from a closer-than expected primary, defeating State Rep. Charles Booker of Louisville. McGrath, who was endorsed by the DSCC, has raised over $40 million since entering the race and has tried to establish herself as a moderate. Booker, meanwhile, aligned himself with the more progressive wing of the party, earning the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He also racked up endorsements from some of his colleagues in the Legislature, as well as Grimes herself.
For most of the primary campaign, McGrath seemed destined for victory. But Booker gained steam following the murder of Breonna Taylor in his hometown, and he attended several protests and marches following the death of George Floyd. In the weeks following the protests, he began earning more endorsements and his fundraising started to pick up. While he gained a huge election day surge, it was too late to overcome McGrath’s strength with absentee ballots. He narrowly lost the primary 45%-43%. Though he won Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, with 59% of the vote to McGrath’s 35%.
Either McGrath or Booker would have faced an uphill climb against McConnell. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report rate the race as ‘Likely Republican.’ While he continuously posts poor approval numbers, he benefits heavily from the state’s partisan lean. But in McGrath, McConnell draws a challenger who has $41 million at her disposal, more than any U.S. Senate challenger in the country this cycle. While she is a heavy underdog, McConnell is not going to sleep on McGrath. $40 million is no small amount of money. Expect McConnell to use some the attacks that Andy Barr used against McGrath: she is too liberal for Kentucky and she is funded by Hollywood liberals. But either way, McConnell is still a heavy favorite for reelection, as this is a state that voted for Trump by nearly 30 points. If McGrath somehow wins, it would be a huge upset.