FLORENCE, Ky. — It is not easy these days to lose as a Republican running in ruby-red Kentucky. But that is what happened here in November in the governor's race, when the caustic incumbent managed to alienate enough of his base to fall just short.
The Senate majority leader’s insistence that he will coordinate Trump’s impeachment trial with the White House — and that he has no intention of being impartial — has provoked howls of protest from Democrats. On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused McConnell of orchestrating a “coverup” of Trump’s actions.
It has also prompted speculation that he could jeopardize his slender majority by exposing Republicans in swing or Democratic-leaning states to accusations that they went along with a rigged process running counter to the Constitution.
But here in Kentucky, it just looks like savvy politics.
The 77-year-old is expected to face a vigorous challenge in November from a decorated Marine fighter pilot with a record of big-dollar fundraising. Yet McConnell has shown an unerring instinct for self-preservation across six Senate terms and a record stint as Republican leader.
Analysts say his impeachment strategy is just more evidence that he is playing to win.
“It’s the safest move he could make,” said Ryan Salzman, a politics professor at Northern Kentucky University. “Anything that even appears he’s going against President Trump on impeachment, in any way, would be the worst thing he could do for his reelection.”
So far, there is no suggestion that he will. Over weeks of negotiation, McConnell has refused to bow to pressure from Senate and House Democrats — or even from more moderate members of his own caucus — over how he will manage the process. The majority leader has instead vowed “total coordination” with the White House.
With the trial expected to begin as soon as this week, there is no assurance that the Senate will subpoena witnesses or documents related to the Trump administration’s campaign to force Ukraine to open an inquiry into presidential rival Joe Biden.
As the process unfolds, the pressure on McConnell is expected to intensify. Several Republican senators — including Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine), the latter of whom is expected to face a tough reelection fight — have either expressed misgivings about their leader’s intentions or said directly that they want key witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton, to testify.
“We have to take that step back from being hand-in-glove with the defense,” Murkowski told an Alaska radio station late last month, adding that she was “disturbed” by McConnell’s coziness with the administration on impeachment.
But for now, McConnell — who can afford to lose up to three votes while retaining a working majority — has the support he needs to call the shots. The political calculus on McConnell’s home front offers him little room to compromise, even if he wanted to.
To Trump’s backers here in northern Kentucky — the small cities, affluent suburbs and rolling hill country that fans out just across the muddy Ohio River from Cincinnati — that is just how they like it. Many have long been wary of McConnell, deeming him overly willing to cut a deal and insufficiently committed to the president’s agenda. His management of the president’s trial, they say, will be a test.
“How he handles this impeachment is going to be the big determinant of whether people get behind him,” said Kevin Gordon, a talk radio host and activist.
Impeachment, Gordon said, was tantamount to “an active coup” and should be given as little credence as possible.
“They should dismiss the charges outright. It’s a sham,” Gordon said. “If McConnell runs the trial the way the Democrats want, people here are not going to be happy.”
So far, conservatives said they like what they have seen.
State Sen. John Schickel credited McConnell for his “steady hand” and for staying, by and large, in the good graces of Trump voters who are “very, very, very passionate” in their defense of the president. But he also said McConnell is “walking a tightrope.”
“He definitely has to watch his right flank. He’s always had to,” said Schickel, who recently penned an opinion piece describing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers, which was agreed to by McConnell’s Senate, as “another step toward socialism.”
“The party leadership in northern Kentucky is very conservative and doesn’t always like what he does,” Schickel said.
Last year’s gubernatorial race offers a cautionary tale of what happens when a Kentucky politician, even a Republican one, takes the state’s conservative voters for granted.
Bevin was infamous for his insults and bullying — especially of opponents, but even of Republican allies. That caught up to him as the governor sought a second term. Bevin won the primary, but in the general election, matched against a relatively moderate Democrat with a deep pedigree in Kentucky politics, many steadfast Republicans sat the contest out.
“Bevin treated his conservative supporters terribly,” said Phyllis Sparks, a 58-year-old Republican activist who declined to vote for either of the top contenders in the governor’s race. “He didn’t represent me or my values.”
Because of voters like Sparks, Bevin’s support collapsed statewide, but most notably in northern Kentucky.
In Boone County, the suburban area outside Cincinnati where Sparks lives, Bevin’s margin was cut by 20 percentage points compared with his first run. In the adjacent counties of Kenton and Campbell — places Bevin had won handily in 2015 and Trump had carried by 25 points a year later — the Democrat, Andy Beshear, flipped them en route to a 5,000-vote squeaker of a statewide victory.
The result galvanized Democrats, especially the campaign of Amy McGrath, the Marine veteran who is the favorite to win the party’s primary and to challenge McConnell in the fall.
“It gave us momentum,” McGrath said in an interview. “Matt Bevin was incredibly unpopular, and Kentuckians got rid of him. Mitch McConnell is also very unpopular.”
According to one poll last year, the majority leader has less support in his home state than any other senator, with just 37 percent of Kentuckians backing him.
Yet most prognosticators say McConnell’s chances of winning reelection are strong, and even Democrats acknowledge that the comparison to Bevin has serious limitations.
For one thing, “McConnell doesn’t insult everyone on a daily basis, which Bevin did,” said Linda Nesbitt, chair of the Campbell County Democrats.
For another, McConnell will be running on a ticket with Trump, a president who enjoys a plus-14 net favorability in Kentucky, at the top. Though the two got off to a rocky start — Trump’s early months in office featured a presidential tweetstorm against the senator for his failure to repeal and replace Obamacare — they have since found an accommodation.
“They’re a team,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff whose political consulting firm handles the senator’s digital advertising. “The president’s agenda requires somebody like Mitch McConnell to get it done.”
Tax reform and judicial appointments are central pillars of Trump’s record that were enabled by McConnell. Now impeachment will offer the senator a fresh, high-profile chance to showcase his value to the president — and to Trump’s supporters.
“He’s handling impeachment like a surgeon would — with precision,” said Sparks, who said she will eagerly volunteer for both Trump’s and McConnell’s campaigns this fall. “McConnell’s been a good ally of the president, and Trump’s coattails are very long.”
An October poll found that just 29 percent of Kentuckians favor impeaching and removing Trump. That has made the issue a tricky one for McGrath, who came up short in a 2018 House election.
After the House voted to impeach the president in December, McConnell’s campaign knocked the Democrat for releasing a lengthy statement that did not say specifically whether she supported the House’s move. (She later clarified that she did.)
McGrath said in the interview that impeachment is rarely what voters most want to discuss with her, and that her message to them is focused far more on “kitchen table” issues such as health care and education. To the extent that voters do bring up impeachment, she said, “you get this feeling of, ‘Let’s move on.’ ”
Still, she said she would continue speaking out against McConnell’s handling of the trial, which she described as “going against your oath under the Constitution.”
“Most Kentuckians want a fair trial,” she said.
Many Kentuckians, of course, do not even think it is worthy of a trial. Around the bar at PeeWee’s — a dimly lit but highly spirited watering hole popular among local Republicans — even mention of the “i-word” elicits sputtering condemnations of Democrats for daring to try to take down “the best president we’ve ever had.”
In quieter corners, some offer more nuanced views. Paul Fiser, a 60-year-old lawyer, faulted Pelosi for going ahead with impeachment despite saying she would not proceed without bipartisan support. But he also criticized McConnell for saying he could not be an impartial juror.
Fiser said he had backed Trump “reluctantly” in 2016 and would probably do so again in 2020. But he drew a distinction between the president — still an outsider, even after three years in Washington — and the Kentuckian who has walked the halls of Congress for more than three decades.
“McConnell has become the ultimate insider. But people are tired of business as usual. They’re looking for unconventional candidates,” said Fiser, who described himself as undecided in the Senate race. “He’s not a lock like he’s been in the past.”