The Man Who Makes Money Talk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A01
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lives modestly. He picks up his own dry cleaning and often does the shopping and cooking for himself and his wife.
But he loves money, perhaps more than any other politician on Capitol Hill. He likes to raise it and he likes to spend it. It's what made him the father of the modern-day Republican Party in Kentucky, and it's what he sees as the key to expanding influence for the GOP in Washington.
As Senate hearings resume into questionable fund-raising practices in last year's elections, Republicans and Democrats alike are renewing calls for fast movement on campaign finance reform legislation that would impose limits on candidates' spending.
That doesn't faze McConnell.
"That will not happen," the senator said confidently. He scuttled reform legislation before, and he's doing his best to do it again, speaking out against it at every opportunity, from speeches on the Senate floor to querulous breakfasts with members of the press.
McConnell's text for his sermons on campaign finance is a 1976 Supreme Court decision called Buckley v. Valeo, and he treats it as holy writ. McConnell sometimes sums it up as a pro nouncement that "in our society, spending is speech." Sometimes, he says it means that "money is speech."
Critics such as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) have more caustic words for the decision, deriding it as "half a haircut" because it says statutory limits on campaign spending are unconstitutional but limits on campaign contributions are not.
It is a formula that, for McConnell, has spelled success. Now in his third term in the Senate, McConnell, 55, has managed to win one election after another, partly by shrewd political know-how, partly by spending opponents into the ground.
In Kentucky, McConnell never tires of saying, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000, and the two leading newspapers, the Courier Journal of Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader, are "very liberal." For Republicans in Kentucky, and no doubt elsewhere, the senator argues, money is the great leveler.
"As we all know," McConnell said at a House hearing on campaign finance reform earlier this year, "this is driven by the notion that somehow we're spending too much money, or put another way, speaking too much in the American political process.
"Last cycle [1995-96], we spent roughly what the cosmetics industry did promoting its product, a little more than the public consumed on yogurt, and about twice as much as the public consumed on bubble gum. Looking at it another way, of all the commercials run in this country, 1 percent were political commercials.
"The Big Government solution is to shut us all up."
Catchy scripts like that are a hallmark of McConnell's style. Persistence is another. He struck out twice in bids to move up the GOP leadership ladder by becoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the chief fund-raising engine for Senate Republicans, but he won on his third attempt, with the endorsement of the man who had defeated him twice, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).
"He's a tough competitor," Gramm said. "He and I have been in two bruising political battles and the second time I managed to win by only one vote. I prefer having him on my side. I think that in a Senate where there are not a lot of people who do independent thinking, who are willing to stand up on tough issues, McConnell stands out."
McConnell's chief rival in the battle over campaign finance reform, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), agrees even while disagreeing strenuously with McConnell on the need for change.
"The pressure for reform is mounting and the discomfort level is very high," McCain said. Many senators and House members, McCain said, are running for cover by introducing their own bills 83 at last count and at least some are using that as an excuse to voice their opposition to the key reform packages sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).
Despite the appeal of the concept of reform to many voters, there is considerable support for McConnell's posture of opposition. The conservative Cato Institute, for example, calls reform proposals an "incumbent protection tactic," pointing to a proposed bill that would cap spending for a House campaign at $600,000. According to a Cato Institute study, House challengers who spent less than $600,000 won only 3 percent of their races while those who spent more won about 40 percent.
The Business-Industry Political Action Committee, an independent organization that works to elect pro-business candidates as members of Congress, essentially agreed, arguing that campaign fund-raising activities should be deregulated and candidates required to fully disclose all contributions and expenditures.
McConnell agrees with those arguments. He said the McCain-Feingold measure which would ban now-unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties and donations from political action committees would place unconstitutional limits on political speech.
In this argument, McConnell is supported by an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative interest groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association on the left to the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association on the right.
McCain and Feingold have announced that they are dropping their PAC ban and instead proposing tighter restrictions on such contributions, but that hasn't softened McConnell's rhetoric.
"McCain-Feingold is to democracy what the Clinton health care plan was to medicine," the Kentuckian contended. "I am doing my level best to ensure that it meets the same fate."
Born in northwest Alabama on Feb. 20, 1942, McConnell learned persistence very early. It was drummed into him, he said, by his mother, Dean, farther back than he can remember. A polio attack at age 2 paralyzed McConnell's upper left leg and nurses showed his mother how to do the necessary physical therapy. She exercised McConnell's leg three times a day and trained him not to walk until the doctors decided he could do it on his own. She was determined that the boy not become dependent on braces.
The persistence and determination paid off. When McConnell was 13, the family moved to the Louisville area, where his father worked for the DuPont Co. McConnell dreamed of becoming a big-league baseball pitcher, and he took a no-nonsense approach to the prospect. He found that the harder he worked, the better he got.
But McConnell soon found he was better at running for office than he was at baseball. He became president of his student council in high school, college (the University of Louisville) and law school (the University of Kentucky). In the summer of 1964, on his way to law school, he interned with Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) and from then on set his sights on running for the Senate.
"It occurred to me early on that I was not going to be a great lawyer," McConnell said. "My real interest was in politics anyway."
In 1977, McConnell won his first bid for public office, defeating Jefferson County Judge-Executive Todd Hollenbach, the Democratic incumbent. He has been victorious ever since, first in a reelection campaign for county judge and then in three runs for the Senate.
McConnell's success is usually credited to his intense, aggressive style, his prodigious fund-raising ability and almost unerring political instincts. He has a knack for honing in on an opponent's weakness and exploiting it relentlessly.
"Mitch's motto is to win," said Harvey Sloane, the former Louisville mayor who challenged McConnell in 1990 for his Senate seat. "He looks for your underbelly. It's a no-holds barred campaign. And he's an incredible fund-raiser. He wakes up doing it, he goes to sleep doing it, and he enjoys doing it all day long."
McConnell's ability to raise campaign cash has saved him from political disaster more than once. In 1981, he barely squeaked by a relatively unknown county commissioner named Jim "Pop" Malone, even though he outspent him 3 to 1. McConnell spent so much on advertising in that effort that one Louisville station gave him a free five-day Mexican vacation, as it did other big advertisers. The lackluster victory was enough to give McConnell a public perch from which to run against Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.) in 1984, a year when President Ronald Reagan was running strong.
When McConnell came to Washington in 1985, says a longtime pro-Israel leader, he "didn't have much going for him. His law firm [in Louisville] hadn't been the top one. His exposure to legal matters was nondescript. When he beat Huddleston, he clearly was not a man of the world. But he's grown, give him credit for that. Part of his shrewdness has been that he chose just a few issues to concentrate on."
One of those is foreign policy. McConnell served on the Foreign Relations Committee with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for a few years, but when Helms became ranking Republican, polarizing the panel, McConnell jumped ship for a more influential seat on the appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations. He is now its chairman.
Helms may have the megaphone. McConnell has the money.
And if he gets his way now in opposing efforts to reform the campaign fund-raising system, the senior senator from Kentucky intends to keep things that way.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company