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Fittingly enough, it was hot as blazes in Kentucky when Mitch McConnell slunk back home for Congress’ annual summer recess. One week earlier, Robert Mueller had testified that Russia was meddling in the 2020 U.S. elections. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded by shooting down Democrats’ efforts to bring two election-security bills to a vote — bills that McConnell, in his familiar fashion, had previously sentenced to quiet deaths after they passed the House. In the hailstorm of opprobrium that followed, McConnell had been tagged by “Morning Joe” Scarborough with the indelible nickname “Moscow Mitch.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank called him a “Russian asset.” Twitter couldn’t decide whether he was #putinsbitch or #trumpsbitch. The Kentucky Democratic Party was selling red “Just Say Nyet to Moscow Mitch” T-shirts, emblazoned with an image of the senator’s jowly visage in a Cossack hat, as fast as they could print them up.
McConnell would undoubtedly have preferred to cool his heels in his Louisville home and let the storm subside. But he couldn’t afford that luxury. The biggest political event of the year in Kentucky, the Fancy Farm Picnic, happens on the first Saturday every August, and McConnell knew he had to show his face and speak. Fancy Farm, a 139-year tradition in the tiny western Kentucky town (population 458) it’s named for, is simultaneously one of America’s most charming political gatherings and one of its most brutal. On the one hand, it’s a pint-size Iowa State Fair in a prettier setting with better food, raising money for the local St. Jerome’s Catholic Church. The smoke from hundreds of pounds of pit-cooked mutton and pork barbecue wafts over a small carnival with bands plunking out bluegrass and country standards. Thousands of folks mingle, waving themselves with fans provided by the local candidates who glad-hand their way around the festivities.
But the mood shifts around 2 p.m., when the day’s main entertainment — the “political speaking” — begins. Under a big corrugated shelter, hooting and hollering Republican partisans assemble on the right, Democrats on the left, and candidates for office — joined, almost always, by McConnell — enter to cheers and jeers and seat themselves on a makeshift platform while trying to remember their most cutting quips about their opponents. Speakers at Fancy Farm aren’t supposed to persuade or inform; here, they’re expected to demonstrate, in the finest tradition of old-style Southern politics, that they can deliver zingers that cut the opposition down to size. Heather Henry, the Democrats’ candidate for secretary of state this year, puts it aptly when it’s her turn to face the mob: “It is no coincidence that Fancy Farm happens during Shark Week.”
It’s McConnell’s kind of event, in other words, and he’s done his part over the years to ramp up the partisan rancor. “My favorite year was 1994,” he once told a reporter. “I took a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton onto the stage and defied the Democrats to come over and have their picture taken with it.” When a congressman took up the challenge, the photo ended up in Republican ads. He lost in November. Last summer, after months of waving through President Trump’s judicial nominees, McConnell opened his remarks with a typically pointed jab — “Father, I’ve been preparing for my visit to the parish by performing as many confirmations as I can” — then stood back, his thin lips curling up slightly into the look of smug satisfaction that happens whenever he’s gotten one over on the liberals.
This year, it was no use. Even before “Moscow Mitch” became a thing, Kentucky Democrats were smelling blood. McConnell has been unpopular in his home state for years, but his approval rating plunged in one poll to a rock-bottom 18 percent — with a re-election campaign looming in 2020. In January, he had raised red flags among Republicans and -Democrats alike when he took a key role in lifting sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally under FBI investigation for his involvement in 2016 election-meddling; three months later, Deripaska’s aluminum company, Rusal, announced a $200 million investment in Kentucky. A billboard funded by a -liberal group was subsequently erected on a busy stretch of I-75: “Russian mob money . . . really, Mitch?”
More recently, reports emerged that McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, had set up a pipeline in her department to funnel grants to Kentucky to lift her husband’s political prospects. And as Trump’s trade war with China escalated, uncomfortable old stories began to recirculate about how McConnell “evolved” after he met his future wife in the early Nineties, going from being a fierce China hawk to a potent ally on Capitol Hill. Chao’s father, James — a Chinese American shipping magnate and close friend of former People’s Republic dictator Jiang Zemin — gave McConnell and his wife a huge gift in 2008 that boosted the senator’s net worth from less than $8 million to nearly $20 million. While “Beijing Mitch” doesn’t have quite the same ring as his new moniker, McConnell’s change of heart on Russia was hardly without precedent. (McConnell declined to comment for this story.)
Plus, McConnell made an unusual blunder in July. When a group of former coal miners suffering from black-lung disease caravaned to Washington to ask the senator for help, he met with them for only two minutes, leading to terrible headlines. As Fancy Farm got underway, coal miners in Harlan County were holding a protest that made news throughout the state. Their company had declared bankruptcy without warning and was refusing to pay their final paychecks, and the miners were blocking the tracks to prevent rail cars from shipping $1 million worth of the coal. As the protest stretched into late August, the site became a 24-hour encampment, attracting activists and food donations from around the country, and was visited by nearly every Kentucky politician except McConnell. Practically every story featured the miners cursing the senator. “He’s not pro-coal,” said miner Collin Cornette. “I don’t even think he’s pro-Kentucky.”
Not surprisingly, Democrats and progressive activists swarmed Fancy Farm this year, hopelessly outnumbering the Republicans. Even with a closely contested governor’s race in the offing, most folks came to taunt their senior senator and revel in his troubles. You can’t blame them: For almost four decades, McConnell has been ruthlessly mowing down his opponents with big-money negative campaigns and transforming the GOP into the state’s dominant party. And while many Kentuckians once took pride in having such a mighty mover-and-shaker in Washington, they’ve become increasingly appalled by what he’s done with his power: ensuring that big donors have undue influence in elections, turning Congress into a strictly partisan battlefield, and serving as the indispensable wingman for Trump. The crowd is teeming with Cossack hats and homemade signs with messages like “Putin for senator — cut out the middle man.” Before the speechifying, I run into Bennie J. Smith, a civil-rights activist and jazz musician making a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination to unseat McConnell, and he assesses the mood: “I’d say the crowd is pretty evenly divided the way Kentucky is: Some don’t like him, and some hate him.”
When the speaking commences, people are packed 10 deep along the outskirts of the Democratic side. McConnell sits legs-crossed and expressionless on the platform, dressed down in a pair of pressed jeans, a pink button-down, and red socks. Everybody knows he’ll be the third speaker. And one tick after the emcee starts to introduce him, a clamor rises up that no human voice could pierce — the MC whoop of ancient blood battles about to commence, drowning out McConnell as he tries to speak.
“After suffering under Barack Obama, we are roaring back,” he seems to be saying. “I saved the Supreme Court for a generation by blocking President Obama’s nominees, and now the Washington liberals responded by targeting me. They handpicked Amy McGaffe — I mean, McGrath,” he continues, delivering the kind of line aimed at his leading 2020 opponent that usually gets the Republicans cheering. But they can barely hear, and the “Moscow Mitch!” chant is only growing louder. As McConnell’s six allotted minutes go on, his jowls redden; his voice cracks and rasps as he gestures toward the baying Democrats, offering a preview of his 2020 campaign message. “They want to turn America into a socialist country,” he says. “Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are not going to let that happen. That’s why I call myself the ‘Grim Reaper.’ I’m killing their socialist agenda.” When he finishes, he flashes a cheeky thumbs up toward the Democrats.
In one sense, it’s vintage McConnell: defiant, sarcastically cutting, smugly self-satisfied. But the fury of the crowd has rattled him. After a few more speakers, McConnell makes a stealthy exit out the back, avoiding reporters and detractors to speed back to Louisville. But this summer, trouble follows him everywhere — and the aftermath of Fancy Farm will only add to his woes. This is the day of the El Paso massacre, and the archprotector (and benefactor) of the NRA will soon be besieged with calls to bring the Senate back into session to pass background checks and a red-flag law. His normally crack campaign team will make matters worse as the news comes in from Texas, tweeting out a photo of a graveyard they’d erected in a corner of Fancy Farm, with tombstones bearing the names of all the Democrats he’s defeated, along with McGrath and Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court nominee McConnell infamously blocked. The next morning, to add injury to insult, McConnell will take a tumble and fracture his shoulder on his patio.
For so many years, McConnell has seemed maddeningly invincible. But now, just a few years after achieving his lifelong goal of becoming Senate majority leader, it appears that every political sin the man has committed on his relentless march to power is coming back to haunt him at once. He has welcomed infamy, and now it has arrived on its own terms, bringing with it a previously unthinkable possibility: Could 40 years’ worth of devil’s bargains finally be catching up with Mitch McConnell?
For all the damage he’s inflicted on American democracy, for all the political corpses he’s left in his wake, Mitch McConnell has never betrayed an ounce of shame. To the contrary, like the president he now so faithfully serves, McConnell has always exuded a sense of pride in the lengths to which he’s gone to achieve his ambitions and infuriate his enemies. Unlike Trump, however, McConnell, 77, has always been laser-focused on politics. At age 22, when he interned for Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a genteel Republican of an era long gone, McConnell determined to not only follow his mentor’s path but to surpass him and become Senate majority leader. “It dawned on me early — let’s put it that way,” he told Jonathan Martin of The New York Times. Most senators dream of the White House; all McConnell ever wanted was that gavel, that particular form of power.
His first taste of political triumph came at an even younger age. And the way he managed it would set the tone for everything that came later. As a junior at Louisville’s Manual High School, McConnell decided to run for student-body president. The hitch, as he confessed to his mother earlier in high school, was that “I don’t have even one friend.” As he recounted in his 2016 memoir, The Long Game, McConnell set out to make his lack of popularity irrelevant — by manipulating those who had it.
“Just like Kentucky candidates today seek the endorsement of the Louisville Courier-Journal,” he wrote, “I began to seek the endorsement of the popular kids, like Janet Boyd, a well-known cheerleader; Bobby Marr, the best high school pitcher in the state; and Pete Dudgeon, an All-City Football player. I was prepared to ask for their vote using the only tool in my arsenal, the one thing teenagers most desire. Flattery.”
McConnell ran a relentless campaign and vanquished his well-liked opponent. And “having had my first taste of the responsibility and respect that came with holding elected office,” he wrote, “I was hooked.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Louisville, and a law student at the University of Kentucky, McConnell would further hone his skills in winning student-body presidencies. In the 1960s, he worked as an intern to Kentucky Rep. Gene Snyder, a hardcore segregationist. But McConnell’s brand of Republicanism — he’d chosen the party because his father fought under Dwight Eisenhower in World War II — was more moderate. Young Mitch was gung-ho for civil rights. In 1963, while an undergraduate, McConnell spoke at a university rally, urging students to join Martin Luther King Jr. in marching to the state capitol. That same year, he wrote an op-ed urging Republicans to eschew the “constitutional” arguments that Barry Goldwater and other conservatives cited as reasons to oppose the Civil Rights Act. “One must view the Constitution as a document adaptable to conditions of contemporary society,” McConnell wrote. Any “strict interpretation” of the founding document was “inherently evil” if it meant that “basic rights are denied to any group.”
In his first bid for office, in 1977, McConnell challenged the Democratic incumbent for Jefferson County judge executive — basically, the official in charge of Greater Louisville’s government. He courted women’s groups by supporting abortion rights, and promised unions that he’d press for collective-bargaining rights for public workers. But for the first time, he also showed how willing he would be to cast aside principles. “Forced busing” had recently been imposed by the courts to desegregate Louisville’s public schools, and McConnell ran in opposition to it; the former civil-rights champion was now pandering to white voters’ anxieties and resentments.
In that first race, he also gave a glimpse of the kinds of campaign tactics he’d use for the next 40 years. McConnell was never much good when it came to mixing with folks on the campaign trail, but he had no compunction about asking big donors for money. They were the popular kids he’d now be using for his own ends. Raising $355,000 for the race, well beyond any amount ever spent in Jefferson County, he hired a top ad maker and pollster. With their help, McConnell zeroed in on the vulnerabilities of his opponent, Todd Hollenbach. He blew up some minor ethical lapses into darkly ominous controversies. And because Hollenbach was going through a divorce, McConnell’s ads were full of smiling family images of the Republican newcomer, his wife, and his daughters. (McConnell’s first wife, who went on to become a noted feminist scholar, divorced him in 1980.) Decades later, Hollenbach was still fuming about McConnell’s tactics, bitterly telling The New York Times Magazine, “He’s whatever he needs to be for the occasion.”
But it worked. McConnell won by six percentage points, and then proceeded to forget about his pro-labor promises once in office. “He burned them and never looked back,” says Mike Broihier, a former newspaper editor who’s running a grassroots Democratic campaign to challenge McConnell in 2020. “That’s the guy.”
It was already becoming clear that, in the political world of Mitch McConnell, convictions and campaign pledges were fungible things, easily tossed aside. Throughout his career, as the Republican Party veered right, and then further right, McConnell moved with it. “It’s always been about power, the political game, and it’s never been about the core values that drive political life,” John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s lone Democratic congressman, told Alec MacGillis, author of the 2014 McConnell biography The Cynic. “There has never been anything that interested him other than winning elections.”
McConnell, as he himself likes to point out, isn’t blessed with the usual ingredients for a successful politician: wealth, eloquence, charm. Even the young McConnell was a stiffly formal, pokerfaced presence in public. “He does not have much personal appeal,” says Kentucky political reporter Al Cross, who’s covered all of McConnell’s Senate campaigns. “But he’s a natural political thinker. He understands the mechanics of politics. All those polls you see now where he has a low approval rating? That’s because he doesn’t have a warm-and-fuzzy personality. In those polls he’s running against himself. When you match him up against somebody, he’s pretty good at driving them down to his level.”
In 1984, when McConnell first ran for Senate, he learned the politics of destruction at the hands of a master. His challenge to Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston, a genial two-term Democrat, looked like a distant long shot. But McConnell, who’d been re-elected judge executive in 1981, used his position to build up a fat campaign war chest, and he devoted a good amount of it to hiring the most notorious political hit man in America: Roger Ailes.
The future founder and CEO of Fox News had already established his well-earned reputation for flaunting the truth and grabbing the opposition by the jugular while working for Nixon and Reagan. For McConnell, he cooked up an ad that would become a classic of the genre. Called “Hound Dog,” it featured a pack of bloodhounds trying to sniff out Huddleston, who was allegedly neglecting his Senate duties to make paid political speeches around the country. In fact, as Newsweek reported, Huddleston had made 94 percent of Senate votes. But the hound dogs caught Kentuckians’ imaginations and completely changed the race. “[McConnell] was 40 points behind,” Cross recalls, “but then they put up this ad and it made people laugh.” Most important, it was Huddleston they were snickering at.
McConnell squeaked into the Senate by the narrowest of victories — 5,000 votes statewide, a less-than-one-percent margin. He arrived in Washington as the only Republican to unseat a Democrat in the Senate that year. But he took no time to celebrate: He immediately set to work courting big donors for his re-election bid in 1990. “As I always say,” McConnell wrote in his book, “the three most important words in politics are ‘cash on hand.’ ”
McConnell cemented his reputation as a no-holds-barred campaigner in 1990, when he faced Democrat Harvey Sloane, a two-term Louisville mayor and Yale-educated doctor. McConnell rolled out a tactic he’d use again and again in future campaigns — making his opponent look like more of an outsider than the incumbent from Washington. McConnell had promised reporters he’d be running a purely positive campaign, but he broke that pledge with alacrity. At Fancy Farm in 1989, he lit into Sloane as the “wimp from the East” whose “mommy left him a million dollars” and who had “come down here to save us from ourselves.” (When reporters asked McConnell afterward why he’d already gone negative, he replied, “I just couldn’t help myself.”) Running with generous backing from the NRA, McConnell also painted Sloane as a gun-grabber. McConnell’s campaign sent endless mailers and ran streams of ads turning Sloane’s support for an assault-weapons ban into further evidence that he was an uppity liberal. McConnell, among his many pernicious contributions to American politics, became one of the first to successfully turn the Second Amendment into a cultural wedge issue. (Two decades later, when public outcry for gun-control measures swelled after 20 first-graders and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, McConnell engineered a filibuster that prevented the Senate from even voting on a background-check requirement.)
With the election fast approaching, and McConnell’s lead too narrow for comfort, it was time for the coup de grâce. The senator’s campaign leaked to the press that Sloane, who hadn’t been practicing medicine for a few years, had renewed a prescription for his sleeping pills using his expired Drug Enforcement Administration credentials. Before long, Kentuckians’ airwaves were filled with ads featuring ominous images of vials and pills, with a deep-voiced narrator decrying Sloane’s habit of prescribing himself “mood-altering” “powerful depressants” at “double the safe dose without a legal permit.”
After throwing the kitchen sink at Sloane — whose political career never recovered — McConnell won narrowly, with just 52 percent of the vote. But with the GOP on the rise in Kentucky, and McConnell pulling the strings, he would never again come close to losing. Even so, he would always relish pummeling anyone who dared challenge him. As longtime Democratic operative Jim Cauley put it, “They take good people and make them bad.”
McConnell had become secure enough in Kentucky, and flush enough with big corporate donors, that he could focus more fully on his larger goal of elevating himself over his Republican colleagues in Washington. He would pursue Senate leadership the same way he’d approached winning elections from the start. He’d do whatever it took.
As a senator from a small state, graced with none of the backslapping bonhomie that traditionally led senators up the ladder to power, McConnell had to cast around for a way to rise. When he found it, it meant disavowing one of the few principles he still clung to.
Just as he’d originally run as a pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-civil-rights Republican, McConnell had a long history of calling for removing big money from politics. In 1973, not long after he was elected chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, he’d written an op-ed for the Courier-Journal calling for “truly effective campaign finance reform” — lowering contribution limits, mandating public disclosure of donors, even capping how much a candidate could spend in a race. He’d later laugh this off, claiming he’d been “playing for headlines” to distract folks from the Watergate scandal. But in 1987, midway through his first term, McConnell floated a constitutional amendment to end what he called the “millionaire’s loophole” — the ability for wealthy Americans to spend limitless money on their own campaigns.
The proposal went nowhere, and in his second term, McConnell made a 180-degree turn and set himself down a path to becoming the most outspoken and influential opponent of campaign-finance restrictions in American history. At the same time, he began to master the art of tactical obstructionism. Democratic Sens. David Boren and George Mitchell had proposed a bill that included both spending limits and public financing for campaigns. While some Republicans were hesitant to speak out against a measure designed to tamp down on corruption, McConnell took the lead, blocking the bill by reviving the use of the filibuster, which still carried unsavory associations with segregationist efforts to block civil-rights measures in the Sixties. “Filibustering is sometimes presented as an obstructionist tactic by its opponents,” McConnell would later say, “but in my view, if legislation as awful as this bill is brought up for consideration, there is a duty to obstruct its passage.”
By 1997, McConnell’s reputation for relentless fundraising — “It’s a joy to him,” marveled Sen. Alan Simpson — had won him his first leadership post, as chairman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee. That same year, when a bill was floated to ban “soft money” — contributions to political parties that could be funneled into particular campaigns, allowing donors to exceed legal limits on donations — McConnell steeled the nerves of his fellow Republicans in opposing it: “If we stop this thing,” he reportedly told his colleagues, “we can control this institution for the next 20 years.” The fact that McConnell had himself proposed a soft-money ban four years earlier mattered not at all.
Two years later, McConnell clinched his reputation by fighting tooth-and-nail against fellow Republican John McCain’s effort to rein in campaign money with the McCain-Feingold Act. As the Senate debated the measure in October 1999, McConnell confronted McCain on the floor, demanding that he name senators he considered to be corrupted by donors’ money. “For there to be corruption,” McConnell said, “someone must be corrupt. I just ask my friend from Arizona what he has in mind here?”
When McCain refused to say which senators he had in mind, McConnell kept needling him. Finally McCain shot back: “A certain senator stood up and said it was OK for you not to vote for the tobacco bill because the tobacco companies will run ads in our favor.” That “certain senator,” as everyone knew, was McConnell.
Some senators might have been embarrassed. But the same sorts of scorched-earth tactics McConnell had used to win elections back home were now turning him into a national conservative antihero. McCain and the others could talk loftily about saving democracy; McConnell invited and embraced their scorn, knowing he was also winning the silent gratitude of many of his fellow senators. In a sense, he made himself a human shield for other Republicans opposed to reform. But he also got a kick out of being vilified. When U.S. News & World Report ran a headline calling McConnell the “Darth Vader” of campaign finance reform, he had it framed and hung in his office.
Lord Vader wasn’t finished. When McCain-Feingold became law, McConnell immediately lent his name to a lawsuit to block the law’s enforcement. In 2003, his suit lost on appeal in a narrow 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court. Undaunted, he then co-founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech in D.C., with archconservative lawyer James Bopp,
who would bring the Citizens United case that, come 2010, would not only strike down McCain-
Feingold but also legalize unlimited corporate contributions. By then, McConnell had been elected Republican leader — and was busy laying minefields in the legislative path of President Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Contrary to popular recollection, McConnell didn’t utter his infamous quote — “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” — until the eve of the 2010 midterms. In his book, McConnell insisted the reporter took the quote out of context, twisting it into something unpatriotic and cynical. But then, just a few paragraphs later, he wrote about the Tea Party revolution: “To my great delight, it seemed as if we were moving in the direction of holding Obama to one term.”
At first, McConnell’s Senate minority — with just 40 Republicans — was too small to block Obama at every turn. When his dispirited colleagues met in the weeks before Obama’s inauguration, McConnell rallied them around a strategy: Stick together as a bloc and use parliamentary maneuvers to filibuster, or at least delay, every major piece of legislation the president proposed. Some Republicans were worried about the political repercussions of obstruction, but McConnell convinced them if they could deny the president victories, his popularity would wane — the public would come to blame him, not Congress, for the failures. To show the way, McConnell led the opposition to Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, both denying him the chance to fulfill an important campaign promise and reviving questions about Democrats’ toughness on foreign policy.
McConnell wheedled and cajoled waffling senators to prevent a single Republican vote from being cast for Obama’s biggest legislative priority, the Affordable Care Act, ensuring that its passage would be seen, and debated in the future, as a strictly partisan affair. But the most enduring legacy of McConnell’s strategy would be his dramatic break with tradition on the president’s judicial nominees. While only 68 nominees had been denied confirmation over the previous 40 years, Republicans successfully filibustered 79 nominees during Obama’s first term alone.
McConnell was too much of a Washington operator to be considered a hero of the new right-wing insurrection inspired by the shock of a black man’s presidency. He privately fumed about the tea partyers who ousted establishment Republicans in primaries. But McConnell, the onetime moderate whose real ideology was now anybody’s guess, had become, in the words of The Atlantic’s James Fallows, “the most effective purely partisan figure” in modern times.
McConnell’s work finally paid off in 2014, when Republicans won the Senate and made him majority leader at last, but he could not control the broader consequences of the upheavals his quest for power had set in motion. His all-out war on Obama’s agenda, his transformation of the Senate into a hyperpartisan arena, and his devious obstructionism helped set the table for Trump — and, simultaneously, conceivably, for McConnell’s own downfall.
McConnell was hardly bowled over by the idea of Trump as president. “It’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues,” McConnell dryly remarked during the 2016 campaign. After Trump won, Washington reporters rubbed their hands in glee, keeping watch for signs of high-level clashes between the spectacularly ill-matched Republican leaders. The closest they came to a satisfying public “feud,” though, was in the aftermath of the failure of Republicans’ alternative to Obamacare in the summer of 2017, when Trump blamed McConnell and vice versa. But after McConnell bit his lip and declined to join the chorus of condemnation over Trump’s appalling response to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, then teamed with the administration to pass the president’s first budget bill over strong conservative objections, the two began singing from the same hymnal. By 2018, at a rally in Kentucky, they were praising each other to the skies. “Aren’t we proud of President Trump?” McConnell proclaimed. Trump called McConnell “one of the most powerful men in the world,” and lauded him as “Kentucky tough” — which would become the slogan for McConnell’s 2020 campaign.
Most of all, Trump came to appreciate the “big, beautiful present” McConnell had given him by leaving scores of judicial seats open for the new president to fill, delighting Trump’s evangelical base and giving him something to brag about during his rocky first year. McConnell never stopped giving the president gifts — passing tax cuts for wealthy Americans, declaring the “case closed” on collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections while the Intelligence Committee was still investigating, and refusing to bring election-security bills up for a vote. Almost single-handedly, McConnell, while reportedly continuing to “abhor” Trump’s ignorance and lack of discipline, gave the administration legitimacy, along with a record to run on in 2020. McConnell’s efforts have led some to liken him to Hindenburg, the German president who enabled Hitler’s rise. Asked about the comparison, McConnell scoffed, “To expect Republican elected officials not to try to achieve as much as they possibly can . . . out of pique over presidential behavior is nonsense.”
While McConnell’s role as Trump’s chief accomplice has made him the archvillain of Democrats nationally, he is detested back home for broader reasons. At Fancy Farm, one of the folks I meet is Jen Thompson, an artist and farmer from Paducah who’d come to holler at McConnell — but admits she’d once been a supporter. “I’m 47,” she says. “When I was first able to vote, in 1996, I voted for Mitch. He was already getting powerful in Washington, and I bought into the idea that he could do a lot of good for us. But eventually it dawned on me, like a lot of people, this guy really doesn’t give a crap about us. He’s all about stockpiling his own squirrel-nut factory for his winter. Public records are public records, and you can see how his trajectory has gone toward wealth. Back home, I’m still making the same amount of money I was making! I think he’s got a real good chance of being booted this time.”
She was getting at something that explains McConnell’s dismal approval rating in Kentucky — and that could cause him fits in his run for re-election next year. When he last ran, defeating Secretary of State Alison Grimes by 15 points in 2014, McConnell had plenty of power in Washington, but nowhere near the national notoriety he’s achieved since becoming majority leader and handmaiden to Trump’s agenda. The more power he’s accrued, the more folks back home are inclined to wonder: How come Kentucky isn’t reaping any benefits from it?
The Democrats competing to challenge McConnell next year say they plan to pound that question home. “While McConnell has gone from being one of the poorest senators to one of the richest, he has left Kentucky behind,” says Broihier, the newspaper editor who’s running a grassroots campaign. He ticks off some grim statistics: “We’re 47th in poverty, 44th in employment, 43rd in education. We’re number five in diabetes and teen pregnancy. We’re number one in pollution from [coal] plants. If the measure is what you’ve done for your constituents, it’s a pretty easy case to make.”
The early front-runner for the nomination, Amy McGrath, plans to hammer that message home as well. “Mitch McConnell has been in office 34 years now,” she says, “and for many people in Kentucky, their lives have not only not gotten better, they’ve gotten worse. He’s let our signature industries like tobacco go away, without any plan for replacing the lost jobs. He’s known the coal industry would decline, for decades, and now we have an entire region, eastern Kentucky, where there’s not a lot of opportunity. And it’s easy to see why: You go 30 minutes outside of Lexington to the east, you lose cellphone coverage. Businesses might want to come here, but you know what? They come, they see there’s no infrastructure, and they turn right around and leave.”
McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who fell just shy of unseating a Republican in Congress last year, has raised buckets of money — $7 million in the first six weeks of her campaign, demonstrating the other challenge McConnell will be facing next year: Democrats nationally are dying to throw money at anyone who might be able to unseat him.
In his past two campaigns, McConnell outraised his opponents by $10 million and $12 million, an almost insurmountable advantage for even the most appealing candidate to overcome. It’s unlikely that he’ll enjoy that kind of edge in 2020. Ditch Mitch, a PAC founded by Ryan Aquilina, a digital strategist for progressive campaigns, has already raised $3 million to supplement the Democratic effort to oust McConnell. “We see ourselves as a necessary complement,” Aquilina says, “considering that McConnell is going to raise jumbo-jet cash and spend it all going negative.”
McConnell’s opponent in 2020 will surely make an issue of where his campaign money comes from, too — since it’s almost exclusively from corporate donors from outside Kentucky. Only nine percent of his haul in the most recent fundraising came from individual donors back home; the vast majority, as usual, derived from a roster of big corporate interests — including United Parcel Service, the Blackstone Group, Eli Lilly & Co., and the private-prison GEO Group.
“This is a winnable race, if you try to make it catered to Kentuckians,” says Matt Jones, the popular host of Kentucky Sports Radio who’s also considering a run. “This is a blue-collar, anti-establishment state. People are religious, but they’re not Bible Belters. There’s a long history of fighting for workers’ rights here. People say voters aren’t going to go for Trump and then vote for a Democrat down-ballot. But that’s misunderstanding Kentucky.” Aquilina agrees: “The reason people voted for Trump here is the same reason they hate McConnell.”
Which means McConnell won’t have the luxury of distancing himself one iota from the president between now and next November; Trump’s approval ratings in Kentucky are more than 20 points higher than his own. As demonstrated by his hasty dismissal of those election-security bills in July, the senator has no choice but to keep himself tethered to Trump and hope to ride his coattails — a situation that, for a control freak like McConnell, cannot be comforting.
That’s what it’s come to for Mitch McConnell. Four decades of clawing his way to power, by any means at his disposal, and now his political life, which is his only life, ultimately rests in the hands of the most erratic character ever to occupy the Oval Office. No one can doubt that McConnell will run a campaign, as always, that is lavishly funded and equal parts savvy and cutthroat. But the conditions, created largely by the senator himself, are ripe for a reckoning. And if it comes, it will be an ironic and fitting denouement to one of the most destructive political careers in American history.