SENATE RACES

McConnell Hopes Cash Scares off 2014 Rivals

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, in Fancy Farm, Ky. (AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore)  
National Journal
Dan Friedman
March 12, 2012, 5:50 p.m.

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.”

×