Mitch McConnell Is No Longer the King of Kentucky

Even as he is expected to coast past the primary on Tuesday, he no longer defines Republicanism in Kentucky.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
May 19, 2014, 4:46 p.m.

FRANK­FORT, Ky. — The headquar­ters of the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Ken­tucky oc­cu­pies the corner of a leafy neigh­bor­hood about a half-dozen blocks north of the Cap­it­ol. There are two signs out front. One, in gold let­ter­ing, iden­ti­fies the fa­cil­ity as the party headquar­ters. The oth­er reads: “MITCH Mc­CON­NELL BUILD­ING.”

And so it has been. For three dec­ades, Mitch Mc­Con­nell, the Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er and the state’s seni­or sen­at­or, has been the face, heart, and brains of Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an­ism. And al­though he is ex­pec­ted to dis­patch his tea-party primary op­pon­ent, Matt Bev­in, with ease on Tues­day, the cam­paign has put on dis­play a simple fact: Mc­Con­nell is no longer the sin­gu­lar force here he once was.

“There’s a change of the guard tak­ing place now in Ken­tucky,” said James Comer, the state ag­ri­cul­ture com­mis­sion­er and front-run­ner — though he is still tech­nic­ally un­declared — for the GOP gubernat­ori­al nom­in­a­tion in 2015. “It’s still Mc­Con­nell’s Re­pub­lic­an Party, but it’s edging to­ward be­ing Rand’s Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

The shift has been, lit­er­ally, broad­cast for all to see in the last week. As the primary date has ap­proached, one of Mc­Con­nell’s clos­ing tele­vi­sion ads fea­tured a testi­mo­ni­al from the state’s ju­ni­or sen­at­or, Rand Paul.

“It’s still Mc­Con­nell’s Re­pub­lic­an Party, but it’s edging to­ward be­ing Rand’s Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

“It is clear,” said Al Cross, a long­time ob­serv­er of Ken­tucky polit­ics and the dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute for Rur­al Journ­al­ism and Com­munity Is­sues at the Uni­versity of Ken­tucky, “who car­ries the stick in that ad.”

The ad is all the more not­able giv­en that only four years ago it was Mc­Con­nell in the star­ring and en­dors­ing role in the fi­nal ad of the Sen­ate GOP primary. “I need Trey Grayson in Wash­ing­ton,” Mc­Con­nell said of the can­did­ate he picked to run against Paul. The voters dis­agreed. Paul trounced Grayson by 23 points. The polit­ic­al winds have been shift­ing ever since.

The cur­rent passing of the torch is oc­cur­ring even as Mc­Con­nell re­mains one of the most power­ful Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton, a man with a ser­i­ous shot to be­come Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er next year. Yet Paul, the feisty first-term sen­at­or with a liber­tari­an streak and his eyes on the White House, has ec­lipsed him as the pree­m­in­ent and most pop­u­lar GOP pol in the Bluegrass State.

It’s not so much that Mc­Con­nell, 72, isn’t still feared and power­ful. It’s just that he isn’t as feared or as power­ful.

“To use a cor­por­ate ana­logy, he used to be the ma­jor­ity share­hold­er,” Cross said. “Now he’s only the plur­al­ity share­hold­er.”

The Paul ad tells only part of the story. Ever since Paul’s up­start win in 2010, Mc­Con­nell has cour­ted him and his tea-party base. As he plot­ted his own reelec­tion this year, Mc­Con­nell tapped his ju­ni­or’s 2010 cam­paign man­ager, Jesse Benton, as his own. When an au­dio re­cord­ing later leaked of Benton say­ing he was “sort of hold­ing my nose” to do the job, be­cause it would “be a big be­ne­fit to Rand in ‘16,” Mc­Con­nell grinned and had to bear it. Benton kept his job. And they posed to­geth­er for a pic­ture on Face­book as Benton held his nose.

Mc­Con­nell stayed si­lent, too, when Paul ex­plained to con­ser­vat­ive talk-show host Glenn Beck in Feb­ru­ary that he backed Mc­Con­nell “be­cause he asked me. He asked me when there was nobody else in the race. And I said yes.”

People close to Mc­Con­nell say he is sin­gu­larly fo­cused on win­ning; em­bra­cing Paul simply smoothed the path to primary vic­tory, whatever hit his repu­ta­tion took. “His ego nev­er gets in his way of do­ing what he needs to do in a cam­paign,” said Ted Jack­son, a vet­er­an GOP strategist in Ken­tucky. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Sen Mitch Mc­Con­nell shakes hands with Sen. Rand Paul. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)

Still, the primary has left a linger­ing im­pres­sion. As Joe Sonka, a Mc­Con­nell ant­ag­on­ist and news ed­it­or at Louis­ville’s LEO Weekly, re­cently told Rolling Stone, “This is a once-proud man, re­duced to beg­ging.”

There is a reas­on the Ken­tucky GOP headquar­ters is named after Mc­Con­nell. He, as much as any in­di­vidu­al, is re­spons­ible for the con­ver­sion of Ken­tucky from a solidly Demo­crat­ic state to a deep-red Re­pub­lic­an one, at least at the fed­er­al level. Demo­crats used to dom­in­ate the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion; now they are re­leg­ated to a single House seat. Re­pub­lic­ans took over the state Sen­ate a dec­ade ago, un­der Mc­Con­nell’s watch, and hope to add the state House this year.

“He’s cer­tainly been the ar­chi­tect of the mod­ern Re­pub­lic­an Party in Ken­tucky, without ques­tion,” said Steve Robertson, the party chair­man since 2007.

The state GOP has grown faster than ever dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, adding tens of thou­sands of new voters to its rolls. The party has taken a not­able right­ward turn. Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­ans have sent not only Paul to Wash­ing­ton but also re­cently Rep. Thomas Massie, one of most liber­tari­an mem­bers of the House.

Former Ken­tucky Gov. Ju­li­an Car­roll, now a Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­or, said Mc­Con­nell still “pulls a lot of strings be­hind the scenes, but I don’t think he’s as re­spec­ted by the mem­bers of his party as in years past. Quite frankly, most of the lead­er­ship of the Re­pub­lic­an Party that I know con­sider him too lib­er­al.”

If any­thing, Robertson sug­ges­ted, Mc­Con­nell is a vic­tim of his own suc­cess. “When you’re grow­ing, that means you have more people in­volved,” he said. “Mitch Mc­Con­nell has not di­min­ished, but there are just more people who are also provid­ing lead­er­ship in the party.”

Josh Holmes, who has served as Mc­Con­nell’s chief of staff and is cur­rently a seni­or ad­viser on his cam­paign, put it this way: “The fact that he can share the stage be­cause it’s a lar­ger stage is what he en­vi­sioned all along.”

The bat­on has not been fully passed, in part be­cause Paul doesn’t seem in­ter­ested, Ken­tucky GOP strategists and of­fi­cials said. In­stead, he ap­pears more fo­cused on Des Moines, say, than Frank­fort.

“The in­ter­est­ing dy­nam­ic there is, Mitch wants it to be Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s party, and Rand doesn’t really care,” said Dav­id Adams, who man­aged Paul’s 2010 primary cam­paign. “As soon as Rand de­cides he wants con­trol of the party, it’s his. He’s not com­plet­ing that circle.”

Comer, who was the only state law­maker to en­dorse Paul in his 2010 primary, agreed. “If Rand wanted it to be his, it would prob­ably be,” Comer said, “but he’s been very sup­port­ive of Sen­at­or Mc­Con­nell, very gra­cious to him.”

Of course, Paul now has ad­ded in­cent­ive to reen­gage at the state level. He wants the Le­gis­lature to pass a bill that would al­low him to sim­ul­tan­eously run for the White House and the Sen­ate in 2016. The prob­lem: Demo­crats still con­trol the state’s lower cham­ber. Re­pub­lic­ans hope to change that come Novem­ber.

The mar­quee match­up this fall, though, will be Mc­Con­nell versus Demo­crat­ic Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, who, at 35, casts her­self as the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship. Polls show a tight race. Mc­Con­nell is vul­ner­able, mostly be­cause of an ap­prov­al rat­ing that has sagged as low as the low 30s. “Chris­ti­an Laettner of Duke ac­tu­ally has a bet­ter ap­prov­al rat­ing in the com­mon­wealth than Mitch Mc­Con­nell does,” Grimes said in an in­ter­view. On the trail, she calls him “the sen­at­or of yes­ter­day.”

A Bluegrass poll last week showed that 38 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans agreed that Mc­Con­nell “been in of­fice too long and it’s time for him to go.”

In the com­ing weeks, Mc­Con­nell will have to lean on Paul to re­unite the party and bring those dis­af­fected Re­pub­lic­ans back in­to the fold. It is the same role Mc­Con­nell played four years ago, when he or­gan­ized a unity rally after Paul’s primary win left the party di­vided.

It is, in oth­er words, ex­actly the kind of job that falls to a party’s lead­er.

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