When he wants to be, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has proven himself one of Washington’s savviest deal-makers. He emerged in the last hours of December 2012 to strike a bargain with Vice President Joe Biden to avert the fiscal cliff. A year and a half earlier, it was McConnell who drafted the architecture of the 2011 debt-ceiling compromise. As the nation again inches toward breaching its borrowing limit sometime this fall, the question of what role McConnell will play is central.
“He’s shown himself to be one of the two or three people in Washington capable of coming to an important agreement,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “It’s hard to imagine one happening if he’s not involved.”
The difference now is that the Kentucky Republican is up for reelection in 2014 with a big target on his back. He had seemed destined for a serious challenge from the tea party, but that threat fades with each passing day. “There is absolutely no risk to Senator McConnell in a primary,” declared Jesse Benton, his campaign manager. Instead, the senator’s biggest battle will come in the general election, as Democrats have named him their No. 1 targeted incumbent. This month, the party recruited Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes as its standard-bearer. She was in elementary school when McConnell joined the Senate in 1985, and the 34-year-old provides a sharp contrast with the 71-year-old political veteran.
In her inaugural campaign appearance, Grimes hinted at her strategy: tagging McConnell as an obstructionist creature of Washington. But, in a twist, her entry—and the lack of a credible primary opponent from the right—gives McConnell the freedom, if not extra incentive, to be a deal-maker in the coming fiscal fights. Legislatively, Democrats are almost counting on it. “The only path that has proved to be successful is for the Senate to pass a bipartisan bill and for the House to accept it, despite much kicking and screaming,” said Adam Jentleson, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Senator McConnell would be critical for facilitating that type of deal.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has already said he’s taking a backseat in the coming debt-limit tussle, as his conservative conference drafts a menu of hard-to-swallow demands (from privatizing Medicare to adjusting the Social Security payout formula) for the White House as the price for bumping up the borrowing limit. Democrats are calling that menu a ransom note and a nonstarter.
At an appearance in Kentucky earlier this month, McConnell made it clear he plans to wield his power in Washington as an electoral weapon. “On the influence side, Kentucky would lose dramatically by trading in the leader of one of the two parties in the Senate for a rookie,” he said. “I sit in the front row; my opponent, if she were elected, would sit in the back row. So that’s really what this election is going to be about.”
Democrats say McConnell is in a political box. If he cuts a debt-limit compromise this fall, he will anger conservative activists who are already leery of him and whom he must motivate to turn out in an off-year election. A tea-party challenger could emerge all the way until the filing deadline and could still weaken, even if not defeat, McConnell. Meanwhile, if he stands on the sidelines amid a fiscal crisis, Democrats say it would feed further into the obstructionist narrative about him that has already taken hold. “A minefield,” Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called it. “I don’t think cutting a deal that Republicans and Democrats hate or continuing his usual obstruction mode is helpful for him politically. Both are bad political options.”
McConnell’s advisers, past and present, scoff at the Democratic strategy of portraying him as obstructionist. Stopping President Obama is a plus in Kentucky, they say. It’s a state, after all, where the president lost 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2012 and 62 percent of the general-election vote. “I think being viewed as obstructing the Obama agenda is a genuine compliment in Kentucky,” said Hunter Bates, who managed McConnell’s 2002 reelection. Still, if McConnell is, as Bates said, “the best political chess player in Washington and constantly anticipating and outflanking the other side,” nothing would undercut an obstructionist label quite like a Rose Garden handshake this fall to celebrate his role in averting a default.
McConnell advisers insist that being on the ballot won’t alter the leader’s legislative course. His history, they say, points to a willingness to take tough stands, even in the midst of reelection campaigns. He worked on the unpopular financial bailout in 2008, only months before he was on the ballot, and in late 1995 he was one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose a popular constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning despite facing reelection the next year. “Politics back home don’t affect the way he leads in Washington at all,” Benton said.
Of course, Benton’s presence on Team McConnell is evidence to the contrary. Benton previously managed the 2010 campaign of Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Kentuckian and tea-party favorite McConnell opposed in the primary but has since embraced. It’s a mutually beneficial political bear hug in which Paul, who is eyeing the presidency in 2016, gets establishment credentials and McConnell shores up tea-party support.
“When it’s in Kentucky’s best interest, he’ll get stuff done,” Benton said of upcoming legislative battles. “When it’s not in Kentucky’s best interest, he’ll stop it.” The X-factor: how McConnell prioritizes his belief that his reelection is in Kentucky’s best interests.