Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will be at the center of negotiations during this fall's fiscal showdown. It's inevitable, his allies say, and while his campaign team might not love it, they're now preparing to defend his dealings with Democrats, both from anti-compromise tea partiers and negotiating partners looking to score a few political points along the way.
McConnell's stay-in-the-game strategy is an acknowledgment of the obvious: His campaign can't run from a 30-year record in Washington, so they might as well embrace it.
"From a political perspective, it makes no sense having him sitting in the middle of a very contentious situation, but it doesn't change the fact that the problem's going to happen," a source close to McConnell said.
Indeed, people close to him say, McConnell largely compartmentalizes his roles as Senate Republican leader and candidate, often forcing his campaign team to sell his leadership moves back home.
And the senator has made some major moves, emerging as a key deal-maker between congressional Republicans and the White House. In 2011, he helped craft a deal with Democrats to cut spending and raise the government's debt limit. Earlier this year, he cut a deal with Vice President Joe Biden to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that threatened to send the fledgling economy into a tailspin.
With Congress facing fall deadlines to fund the government and raise the debt limit to pay the bills the country's already racked up, Washington is wondering if he'll reprise his role as The Closer. It's a question that has taken on renewed interest since millionaire tea-party favorite Matt Bevin challenged the 71-year-old McConnell in the GOP primary by attacking his record out of the gate.
McConnell's allies argue that he's no stranger to tough votes. In 2008, he voted for the unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program. And in the 1990s, he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning because he thought it violated freedom of speech, not a popular position in Kentucky.
"He's the Republican leader of the United States Senate because he's there to lead. He's not going to back down. He's not going to shy away from that," said campaign manager Jesse Benton. "He's ready for all the attacks."
And they're already coming. In his first ad, Bevin hit McConnell for supporting TARP and the fiscal-cliff deal. Bevin's spokeswoman told The Washington Post that McConnell should have been able to achieve a better deal with the White House, but "he caved to President Obama and cut a deal that threw Kentucky taxpayers under the bus because he didn't want to get his hands dirty and do the work the people of Kentucky elected him to do." (McConnell's aides fire back that the deal avoided an across-the-board tax increase, saving 99.7 percent of Kentuckians from higher taxes.)
And Democrats are almost daring McConnell to cut another deal. "We'll see if he has the guts," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. "We would not use it against him. The tea party would."
It's a reality that's not lost on Republican insiders either, some who question whether McConnell, caught between the Left and the Right, now has the same leeway to maneuver.
"Does Uncle Mitch come in and save House Republicans from themselves again? Probably not. He can't take the heat at home," said one senior Republican operative.
McConnell did make himself some more space after the fiscal-cliff deal saying he wouldn't negotiate another last-minute pact with the White House.
Still, Democrats are working to position McConnell for criticism no matter what he does. If he hangs in the background, they'll argue he's a weak leader. If he cuts a deal, they'll stand back and let the tea party attack. And if he uses his clout to block a deal, they'll label him an obstructionist.
The strategy was on display last week. After the Senate voted to confirm a new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, whom McConnell opposed, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter argued the vote illustrated McConnell's waning influence. When a reporter pointed out that McConnell had just successfully blocked a spending bill on the Senate floor, Canter responded, "Senator Gridlock."
McConnell is uncowed, telling National Journal in an e-mail that he plans to go into the fall swinging: "We'll fight hard against Democrats' efforts to increase spending, and we'll hold them accountable for the bipartisan promise made to the American people on reducing spending just two years ago."
Democrats and their candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, are arguing that McConnell's an ineffective leader and a partisan obstuctionist who's no longer getting it done for Kentuckians.
McConnell's camp embraces the obstruction label. "Absolutely, Mitch is up there blocking stuff. He's blocking a lot of real horrible stuff," Benton said. And aides say, in the last week or so, his leadership stymied a Democratic-backed spending bill and forced Democrats to tie student loans to market rates. McConnell's style, aides say, is to empower his members to cut deals while keeping him in the loop.
But his high profile does not seem to be translating into high poll numbers at home. In a poll out Thursday by a Democratic firm, McConnell's approval rating was 40 percent, and he was trailing Grimes by 1 point in the survey, within the margin of error. A recent Republican poll had McConnell up 8 points over Grimes and 39 points over Bevin with a 53 percent favorability rating.
McConnell's been in tough spots before. Former Chief of Staff Billy Piper remembers the financial crisis of 2008 when Congress, faced with a collapsing Wall Street, passed TARP to bail out the banks--a move unpopular in Kentucky.
"As the market would go down by hundreds of points a day, our overnight tracking polls would go down with them," Piper remembered. "It was awful."
But with the market cratering, McConnell voted for TARP and Democrats slammed him for it. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer ran ads in Kentucky showing armored trucks hauling down the street with money flying out the back, Piper said.
"I have no doubt that he wondered if being involved in the middle of it he might be presiding over his own demise," he said. "We went into Election Dday not sure if he'd win."
So to those wondering if McConnell will play in the debt dealings this fall, Piper points to 2008: "He was right there in the thick of it then and there was considerable political risk."
This article appears in the August 6, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.