Sen. Mitch McConnell (R)
Elected: 1984, term expires 2014, 5th term.
Born: Feb. 20, 1942, Sheffield, AL .
Education: U. of Louisville, B.A. 1964, U. of KY, J.D. 1967.
Family: Married (Elaine Chao); 3 children.
Elected office: Jefferson Cnty. judge exec., 1978–85.
Professional Career: Chief legis. asst., U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook, 1968–70; Dpty. asst. U.S. atty. gen., 1974–75.
Mitch McConnell is the Senate minority leader, making him the most powerful Republican in the Senate. First elected in 1984, he is known as a tough, thick-skinned leader who does not shrink from a fight. McConnell grew up in Alabama, where he overcame polio, and at age 13, moved to Louisville. He has been in politics for most of his adult life. Between college and law school at the University of Louisville, he was an intern for Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. Soon after graduating from law school, he became chief legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Marlow Cook of Kentucky. He served in the Ford administration Justice Department and then moved back to Louisville. In 1977, at age 35, McConnell won the office that had been Cook’s political stepping-stone, Jefferson County judge-executive. In 1981, he was re-elected, and in 1984, he ran for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Walter (“Dee”) Huddleston. McConnell ran a clever ad showing bloodhounds sniffing for Huddleston in vacation locales where Huddleston had collected fees for speeches while the Senate was in session. McConnell won by 5,169 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Part of a Washington power couple, he is married to former Bush administration Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
|Mitch McConnell (R)||953,816||(53%)||($21,306,296)|
|Bruce Lunsford (D)||847,005||(47%)||($10,801,203)|
|Mitch McConnell (R)||168,127||(86%)|
|Daniel Essek (R)||27,170||(14%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (65%), 1996 (55%), 1990 (52%), 1984 (50%)
McConnell began his Senate career with a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. In 1992, he won a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee and then moved up to become chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee. In that role, he has worked since the early 1990s in opposing Burmese dictators who imprisoned Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Ki. With Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, he sponsored bills imposing trade sanctions on the regime. McConnell has long been a strong supporter of Israel and an advocate for human rights in Cambodia, Egypt, and other nations. He frequently used his seat on Appropriations to channel aid to his home state, and he was particularly active on issues affecting the tobacco industry. In 2003, he forged an agreement for a buyout of tobacco quotas from farmers with the trade-off that the industry accept some Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco. In 2004, the Senate voted to add the buyout and FDA regulation to a must-pass corporate tax bill. But GOP conservatives in the House balked at FDA regulation, and in October 2004, the Senate backed the tobacco buyout without it, passing the corporate tax bill 69-17.
Another major area of interest for McConnell has been campaign finance law. He has been the Senate’s leading opponent in recent years of efforts to curb political action committees and soft money, the large, unregulated contributions to political parties. He believes such restrictions are unconstitutional infringements of free speech. In October 1999, with more than 40 senators on his side, he killed a version of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, the major reform bill of its day. In early 2001, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona brought the bill forward again, and despite McConnell’s efforts, it passed. But it excluded many provisions from previous McCain-Feingold bills, including public subsidies for candidates and voluntary spending limits. McCain’s bill was also amended with a provision to double the limit on individual contributions, which McConnell supported. When he was challenged about the potential inconsistency between his opposition to campaign finance regulation and his vote for amending the Constitution to allow the banning of flag-burning, another form of free expression, McConnell switched his position and became one of the few Republicans to consistently vote against measures to ban the burning of the American flag.
After the campaign finance law was enacted, McConnell filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. In May 2003, a deeply divided three-judge federal court issued a 1,700-page opinion upholding some provisions of the law but not others. In December 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld almost all of the legislation. “There won’t be any less speech or money spent. Dramatically more will be spent, just in a different way,” McConnell predicted, and warned that unregulated fundraising groups called 527s would raise and spend huge amounts of money, as indeed they did in the 2004 cycle. “You must have money in politics because it’s the only way the candidates can get their message across,” he said.
In 1990, McConnell began his quest to climb the leadership ladder. He ran for chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but lost to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. He tried again in 1996 and won. But he was unable to get Republican senators to contribute as much to the campaigns of fellow Republicans as the Democrats gave to the campaigns of their fellow party members, and the GOP gained no seats in 1998. In the 2000 season, he had even tougher sledding. Republicans lost most of the close contests around the country, and the outcome was a 50-50 split that put Democrats in position to gain a majority a few months later, when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party in May 2001 to become an independent loosely affiliated with the Democrats.
In 2002, GOP Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma stepped down from that position. McConnell campaigned for months among colleagues, and his only opponent, Larry Craig of Idaho, dropped out several days before the contest. Then in December, Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi came under a storm of criticism when he spoke favorably of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948 at an event honoring Thurmond on his 100th birthday. McConnell was Lott’s strongest public defender, threatening retaliation against Democrats if they moved to censure Lott. But on December 20, as the controversy showed no sign of abating, he privately recommended to Lott that he “step down as soon as possible.” Ordinarily, McConnell might have been in line for the leader’s position as a result, but he did not challenge Tennessee’s Bill Frist when Frist stepped up to fill the leadership void. Frist replaced Lott as Senate majority leader, and McConnell became whip and a key adviser to Frist, who was relatively unversed in Senate procedures. While others complained about heightened divisiveness in Congress, McConnell declined to join the lament. “I’m amazed at all the hand-wringing over the level of discourse and partisanship. It leads me to believe that nobody has read any history. The level of divisiveness now is really quite mild when it’s compared with numerous periods in our history,” McConnell said.
He showed considerable mastery of Senate rules and, anticipating Frist’s plan to retire in 2006, ran for majority leader. It was a behind-the-scenes campaign, as described by his ally, Republican Robert Bennett of Utah. “Brick by brick, he built a firewall. So whenever somebody decided they wanted to run, all we had to do was sit down and say to them, ‘This is what you’re going to have to deal with.’ One by one potential opponents said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want to run and lose,’ ” Bennett told the Associated Press. The election was a big disappointment for Republicans, who lost majority control of the Senate. As a result, McConnell became minority leader rather than majority leader, winning without opposition. Making a comeback in leadership, Lott narrowly beat Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander for minority whip. “There will be nothing here [the Democrats] can do without some degree of cooperation from a very robust 49-vote minority,” McConnell told the New York Times soon after the 2006 election. “The question is, Are you going to work together and try to do good things for the country or not?”
There was some bipartisan cooperation at first. Appropriations bills left over from the previous Congress were passed in early 2007, and agreement on a minimum-wage increase was reached after Democrats agreed to Republicans’ demand for tax cuts for small businesses. But, predictably, harmony did not last long. In February, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a resolution, supported by some Republicans, opposing President George W. Bush’s strategy for a “troop surge” in Iraq. McConnell announced that he would block debate on Reid’s resolution unless Republicans got votes on their resolutions opposing the cutoff of funds for the troops and setting 11 goals for the Iraqi government. On this, as on other issues throughout the next two years, McConnell was able to hold 41 or more Republicans together to get Reid to meet their demands. Republicans conducted a record number of filibusters during the 110th Congress (2007-08). McConnell observed that he lived by “an 80/20 rule.” He spent 80% of his time trying to coax 20% of Republican senators to stick with the party.
On the issue of Iraq, he certainly succeeded. In June and July 2007, Democrats tried to put a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in the defense bill. Even though Republicans admitted to doubts about the war, McConnell was able to hold a sufficient number of Republicans together to prevent passage of a timetable for troop withdrawals or a funding cutoff. Democrats were outraged, but it was an impressive legislative performance. By September, when signs of success in Bush’s troop surge were starting to emerge, McConnell took the offensive and demanded that Democrats apologize after the liberal website MoveOn.org ran a newspaper ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as “General Betray-Us.” By December 2007, Democrats had abandoned their drive for withdrawal timetables and funding cutoffs.
On one issue, immigration, McConnell faced a deeply divided Republican Conference. He supported the attempts of Arizona Republican Jon Kyl to fashion a comprehensive bill that included a guest-worker program and a legalization process for illegal immigrants currently in the country. But most Republicans opposed the bill. It failed to survive a vote to end a filibuster against it, and an alternative was offered later in June. McConnell, recognizing its unpopularity in Kentucky (a state with a very small immigrant population), this time opposed it. On another issue, the Democrats’ proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program had the support of many Republicans. McConnell opposed it, but it passed and then was vetoed by Bush. McConnell warned the administration that if the president vetoed the farm bill, he would be overridden; the final version included a provision allowing racehorses to be depreciated in only three years—a matter of considerable interest in the Bluegrass country.
In December 2007 maneuverings on the budget, McConnell insisted Democrats hold down spending to the levels proposed by the Bush administration and to provide funding for the Iraq war without strings attached, and he prevailed. He forced the Democrats to back down on a tax increase they wanted to pay for an adjustment in the alternative minimum tax to prevent the tax from hitting middle-income taxpayers. So-called “pay-as-you-go” rules embraced by both parties require that any spending increases or tax decreases be offset by tax and spending adjustments elsewhere in the budget. He opposed a bill by Virginia Republican John Warner and Connecticut independent Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman to regulate reductions in carbon emissions on the grounds that it would impose “a stealth and giant tax on virtually every aspect of industrial consumer life.”
Still, McConnell worked on a bipartisan basis on some issues. He cut an early deal with Reid that paved the way for Senate passage of the $700 billion financial industry bailout requested by the Bush administration in fall 2008. He also supported the loan package for the Detroit Three automakers. General Motors and Ford as well as Toyota have big plants in Kentucky. But bipartisanship did not survive the new Obama administration’s introduction of a massive economic stimulus bill in Congress. The Senate approved the $787 billion bill 61-37 with only three moderate Republicans voting in favor of it. Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference in early 2009, McConnell veered sharply from the bipartisan script when he compared Obama’s economic policies to those of socialist governments in Europe, citing in particular the stimulus bill and Obama’s plan to expand government’s role in health care. “Pushing back these efforts to basically Europeanize America will not be easy,” McConnell said.
He also astutely found ways to maximize the minority’s influence on committees. He appointed some of the party’s most skillful senators to key panels: Michael Enzi of Wyoming, an expert in health care policy, and John Cornyn of Texas were given seats on the Finance Committee. Budget hawk George Voinovich of Ohio was assigned to the Appropriations Committee, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska became the ranking Republican on Energy and Natural Resources. But he suffered a serious setback when Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced in late April 2009 that he would switch parties and join the Democrats, which gave the Democrats nearly a filibuster-proof majority of 59 (with the possibility of 60 if Democrat Al Franken was named the victor in the contested Minnesota Senate race, which he was in July 2009). However, McConnell got less of the blame for the defection than did staunch conservatives in the GOP caucus who have often picked fights with moderates such as Specter.
McConnell has never had an easy time of it in his re-election bids, and 2008 was no exception. Since 1984, he had won re-election three times, but always after spirited competition, from former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane in 1990; from now-Gov. Steve Beshear in 1996; and from Lois Combs Weinberg, daughter of former Gov. Bert Combs, in 2002. Sloane and Beshear held McConnell to 52% and 55% of the vote, respectively, although he did much better against Weinberg, winning 65%-35% and carrying 113 of 120 counties. He lost only a few Democratic strongholds in the eastern mountains. But in 2008, Democrats, still smarting from former Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s defeat in 2004, were determined to put up a tough opponent against McConnell. They found Bruce Lunsford, a hospital and nursing home operator and multimillionaire who ran for governor in 2007 but lost the Democratic primary to Beshear. Lunsford spent some $10.8 million, more than $7 million of it his own money, and ran a string of negative ads against McConnell, including one showing dogs chasing the senator—a takeoff on McConnell’s 1984 bloodhound ads—and another criticizing McConnell for supporting the financial industry bailout.
McConnell seemed unfazed by the political peril. He raised $20.9 million from 2003 to 2008 and ultimately spent $21.3 million. He started running ads immediately after the November 2007 state elections, comparing himself to Kentucky’s long-serving Democratic Sen. Alben Barkley, who was Senate majority leader and later Harry Truman’s vice president, and reminding voters of the money and projects his clout had made possible for the state. In the last two weeks of the campaign, he embarked on a 4,000-mile statewide bus tour with 62 stops in 55 counties. On November 1, just before the election, he announced that the Veterans Affairs Department had approved $75 million for a veterans hospital in Louisville.
McConnell won 53%-47%. In contrast, Republican presidential candidate McCain won 57% of the vote in Kentucky. McConnell lost the state’s two largest urban counties, Jefferson and Fayette, where the Louisville and Lexington newspapers have long written unfavorable articles and editorials about him. He also lost some traditionally Democratic counties in the eastern mountains and in the western part of the state. He won 13% among African-Americans, more than McCain, and 44% among voters under 30. McConnell won 24% of Democrats and 58% of independents. Interestingly, given his yeoman’s work to prevent Bush’s troop surge from being undermined by a timetable for withdrawal, he won 57% among voters for whom Iraq was the most important issue.
His victory made McConnell the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history. Looking ahead after the election, he said, “It will be different with a different party in the White House. I’ll be playing a different role. And how that will all play out lies in the future.” When it appeared that Democrats might deprive Lieberman of his committee chairmanship, McConnell sounded him out about joining the Republicans.
McConnell has done much to build up Kentucky’s long ailing Republican Party. In 1994, he helped Ed Whitfield pick up the 1st District House seat and helped Republican legislative candidates win in western Kentucky. He backed Anne Northup in her win in the Louisville-based 3rd District in 1996, and he helped rescue Sen. Jim Bunning’s re-election campaign in 2004. He helped to persuade two Democratic state senators to switch parties in July and August 1999, which gave Republicans a 20-18 margin in the state Senate, and he has helped them hold that majority ever since. In 2003, McConnell backed the gubernatorial candidacy of Ernie Fletcher, who beat Democrat Ben Chandler 55%-45%. But that was McConnell’s high-water mark. Chandler won Fletcher’s House seat in a special election, and in 2006, Northup was defeated for re-election. Fletcher earned low job-approval ratings, and he lost his re-election bid to Democrat Beshear by a wide margin.