What the Mitch McConnell tape really tells us

April 9, 2013

The political world is a-twitter over an audio tape obtained by Mother Jones of a private campaign meeting involving Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and his 2014 re-election staff in which the past public statements -- and mental health -- of his one-time potential opponent Ashley Judd is discussed.

The reality: This is much ado about not much.

Yes, if you are predisposed not to like McConnell then his voice on the tape saying "This is the 'Whac-A-Mole' period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out" will make you like him even less. And, yes, the fact that the McConnell team talked about Judd's mental health -- "she was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s" -- will further enrage the McConnell-haters.

But, this -- as any campaign operative will tell you -- is the basic blocking and tackling of opposition research that every candidate does both against their potential opponents and against themselves.  And, the average voter won't a) follow this story or b) care all that much if they do -- especially since this news is breaking on the day after the Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA basketball tournament.

(Republicans, rightly, note that how this recording was obtained matters.  The original Mother Jones report didn't detail how that happened although the McConnell campaign is pushing for an FBI investigation into how the audio was obtained. Stay tuned on that front.)

The audio of the McConnell meeting is exactly the reason why we -- and many Democratic operatives -- believed that Judd would be a poor candidate to challenge the Senate Minority Leader. McConnell has made his political living by savaging his opponents and Judd -- as the tape makes abundantly clear -- was an embarrassment of riches in terms of her past public statements.

What's lost in the fuss over the McConnell-Judd tapes -- but shouldn't be -- is what the meeting reveals about Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the candidate Democrats are trying to recruit into the race.

"With Alison Lundergan Grimes it's sort of more traditional issues, as far as, you know, needle in a haystack sort of the inversion of that," said one of the attendees of the meeting, adding that "the best hit we have on her is her blatantly endorsing the 2008 Democratic national platform."

Translation: McConnell doesn't have much on Grimes.  Attacking her as a tool of President Obama might do some damage but as we've seen in recent years -- Jon Tester in Montana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota -- simply linking a Democrat in a conservative state to Obama isn't a foolproof strategy for victory.

The lack of good opposition research on Grimes then is by far the most important thing revealed in this McConnell tape. The Judd stuff is headline-grabbing but not only inconsequential (she isn't running) but ultimately nothing that any campaign -- Democrat or Republican -- wouldn't do when it came to sizing up their opponents.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · April 9, 2013