Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is focused on winning control of the Senate in November but is also looking to the GOP’s 2014 fortunes—mainly his own.
He is building a fundraising juggernaut and organization he hopes is daunting to potential challengers, both Democratic and would-be primary foes.
McConnell ended 2011 with $4.25 million cash on hand. He raised more than $1 million in the final quarter, a big haul almost three years before he’s up for reelection. He will likely crack $5 million in the bank when he reports his first-quarter figures to the Federal Election Commission next month.
Aides say McConnell, who spends hours dialing for dollars once the Senate wraps up nightly, has nearly twice what he had raised for the comparable period before his 2008 reelection; he ultimately raised more than $21 million in that campaign. McConnell is also on pace to have double what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., began 2009 with for his 2010 reelection bid. Reid eventually raised about $25 million.
GOP strategists said McConnell’s last race, Reid’s tough reelection contest, and recent presidential campaigns are the main models for McConnell’s 2014 bid.
“He’s prepared to build a presidential-level campaign for 2014,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s Washington chief of staff.
That means a Senate campaign with unprecedented size, sophistication, voter-targeting ability, and—given Kentucky’s population—money, McConnell supporters say.
“He wants to make sure we have the most state-of-the-art campaign that has ever been run for the Senate, and you do that by learning and watching and by testing things,” one McConnell campaign strategist said. “And so you have to raise money early not only to build, but to look closely at what is working and what is not.”
Since Republicans successfully targeted former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in 2004, the parties have gone after each other’s leaders. Both McConnell and Reid survived national efforts to oust them in their last races.
“Leadership races are probably always going to be like this from here on out,” the campaign strategist said. “You have to run a presidential campaign. You can’t run a congressional campaign anymore.”
From a candidate who ran famously effective negative ads in his first Senate campaign and pulled away in the final weeks of his 2008 bid with a barrage of late television spots, McConnell’s early fundraising serves as a warning to potential challengers.
“You are gonna be spending the next year, year and a half of your life in misery,” the strategist said.
Scott Jennings, a past McConnell campaign guru and former White House deputy director of political affairs, said, “The old McConnell adage is ‘If you throw a pebble at me, I’ll throw a boulder back at you,’ and clearly he is going to have a very ample supply of boulders.
“Obviously it sends a message,” he added.
It seems to be working.
Democrats Jack Conway, whom Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., defeated in 2010, and Crit Luallen, a former state auditor eyeing a 2015 gubernatorial bid, have declined McConnell 2014 challenges.
Any Democrat who is considering a run should “understand what the assignment is,” said Dale Emmons, a Bluegrass State Democratic strategist. “McConnell and his cronies will put a gauntlet down.”
Nonetheless, Emmons says McConnell is raising money so aggressively because “he is at risk if a viable candidate runs against him.”
McConnell backers say he will be ready for any challenge, even as they downplay speculation he will face a serious primary challenge, given all he has done to build the state party.
Billy Piper, a former top aide of McConnell’s, said the senior senator works the grass roots.
“He goes home every weekend and when he is home he is out interacting with people from Paducah to Pikeville,” Piper said. “If you maintain that contact, that’s helpful when year six rolls around.”
Paul defeated McConnell’s favored GOP Senate candidate in 2010. That and his initial support for former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist against now-Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in 2010, led critics to charge that McConnell was on the wrong side of the tea party movement.
But McConnell has worked hard to shore up his relations with that faction of the GOP, especially in Kentucky, where he has wooed Paul backers.
More than most elected officials, McConnell remembers that “you’re not owed these things,” Piper said. “You do get a report card back in the Senate. You have to earn it every single time. And it changes every time.”
This article appears in the March 13, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.