“McConnell has voted for: higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.”

— voiceover in new TV ad, “Meet Matt Bevin”

(Part 1 of 2)

It looks like it’s going to be nasty race for the Republican nomination between Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his Tea Party-backed rival, businessman Matt Bevin. The day Bevin announced he would mount a primary challenge, he launched a tough ad about McConnell’s “failed leadership,” and the McConnell campaign responded with an ad labeling the novice politician as “Bailout Bevin.”

Both campaigns appear to have very diligent researchers. Let’s examine the facts behind each ad, starting with Bevin’s ad.

The key message of Bevin’s ad is that, after nearly 28 years in the Senate, McConnell is not delivering for conservative voters. It ticks off five things that McConnell voted for: Higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and “liberal judges.”

The oldest trick in the attack-ad playbook is to dredge up long-ago votes, especially procedural ones, and mischaracterize them or portray them out of context. Let’s look at these claims in reverse order.

“Liberal judges:” Such definitions obviously are in the eye of the beholder. The ad cites McConnell’s vote in favor of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. The campaign also notes McConnell’s vote for Stephen Breyer in 1994. These votes were cast in a much less partisan period for such nominations, as Ginsburg was confirmed 97-3 and Breyer was confirmed 87-9.

Congressional pay raises: Pay for members of Congress automatically increased in the 1990s and 2000s unless Congress acted to block it. McConnell voted against an amendment that would have halted the pay increase, so in effect it’s a double negative that results in a pay increase.

Debt ceiling increases: Until recently, Congress routinely approved debt ceiling increases. Generally, lawmakers would vote for the debt ceiling increase if the president in office was from the same political party. Thus McConnell’s has a number of such votes during the George W. Bush presidency.

The ad specifically cites McConnell’s vote for the Budget Control Act in 2011 — the deal that raised the debt ceiling in exchange for more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years.

It’s important to note that the debt ceiling routinely needs to be raised in order to pay for bills that Congress has already authorized to be spent. Otherwise, the United States defaults on its debts. Moreover, even as Social Security payments are sent to seniors, bonds must be issued to the Social Security trust fund — a double whammy of sorts. For a history lesson on the debt ceiling, read our primer on the subject.

“Bailouts:” This refers to McConnell’s vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was conceived by the Bush administration in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis. TARP is unpopular now, especially among Republicans, but it is worth remembering that virtually all of the money has been paid back.

Higher taxes: In a GOP primary race, this may be the most damaging claim, but it hangs on the slimmest reed. The ad cites McConnell’s vote for the deal that resolved the “fiscal cliff” crisis earlier this year. But without passage of that law, taxes for every Americans would have automatically increased because of the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.

In other words, the vote was to prevent a massive tax increase. But (here is where it gets complicated) as part of the deal, taxes on wealthy Americans increased from the rates under the Bush tax cut — but not as much if there had been no agreement.

Put another way, the deal permanently kept in place tax cuts for 99 percent of Americans — and the figure is closer to 99.7 percent for a relatively poor state like Kentucky.

McConnell was intimately involved in the negotiations on the final agreement. In fact, by most accounts, he took the Obama administration to the cleaners. Obama only ended up with about $600 billion in new revenue, far less than he originally wanted. McConnell also helped to separate the looming sequester, which slashed spending, from the automatic tax increases. That maneuver cost the administration valuable leverage when the sequester kicked in.

“I know I can speak for my entire conference when I say we don’t think taxes should be going up on anyone, but we all knew that if we did nothing they’d be going up on everyone today,” McConnell said on the day of the vote on the fiscal-cliff deal. “We weren’t going to let that happen….The President wanted tax increases, but thanks to this imperfect agreement, 99 percent of my constituents won’t be hit by those hikes.”

The Bevin campaign also cites a 2008 vote for an energy bill that included relatively minor energy taxes ($2 billion over 10 years). It passed by a vote of 86-8, suggesting it was not particularly controversial among Republicans.

“It is common to hear excuses from Sen. McConnell for how he votes — but he is the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate; it is his job to lead and to fight for a better agreement,” said Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Duran of the fiscal cliff vote. “Instead he caved to President Obama and cut a deal that threw Kentucky taxpayers under the bus because he didn’t want to get his hands dirty and do the work the people of Kentucky elected him to do.”

The Pinocchio Test

While there is an element of truth concerning these votes, the ad’s suggestion that McConnell is some kind of faux conservative is pretty extreme.

The most problematic claim concerns the vote for “higher taxes,” which by itself is worthy of at least Three Pinocchios. This was a vote to prevent higher taxes for the vast majority of Americans — and few of the people actually affected by the new rates live in Kentucky.

But most of the other claims are defensible, at least in terms of accounting for votes over more than two decades. On balance, the ad earns two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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