LOUISVILLE — No one was more invested in Tuesday’s election than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose power in Washington is about to vastly expand, and with it his ability to thwart President Obama’s agenda.
“Make me the majority leader of the Senate next year and we’ll put points on the board and take America in a different direction,” McConnell (R-Ky.) told a cheering crowd in an airplane hangar here Monday. On Tuesday night, he got his wish.
The minority leader for the past eight years, McConnell filled his life’s ambition to be the majority leader of the Senate. As his successful reelection bid drew to a close Monday, McConnell stood atop a riser and notably dialed back the harsh partisan tone that has defined much of his campaign to talk calmly about the “unique opportunity” he has to claim in “an enormously influential position,” as Republicans won the majority in the Senate.
McConnell’s journey to this moment began when he was a Senate intern in the early 1960s. His approach has been focused and methodical, each step thought out, every hardship endured with an eye toward what was around the next corner.
McConnell, who as a 21-year-old watched the March on Washington from the West Front of the Capitol, may finally be within reach of his own 50-year-old dream: Late Tuesday night Republicans claimed their sixth and seventh seats previously held by Democrats, easily clearing the margin needed to claim the majority.
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His race, the most grueling of his career, ended up a rout by about 15 percentage points over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, his second-largest victory ever.
McConnell’s decades of plodding, planning and fighting grew closer than ever to paying off, at last. “It’s time to go in a new direction. It’s time to turn this country around. And I will not let you down,” he told several hundred supporters here in a hotel ballroom.
At 72, he will finally get the chance to rule over the Senate. In Washington and here on the trail in Kentucky, McConnell has promised to run the Senate with more freedom for rank-and-file senators than has Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
“The Senate has done nothing essentially for the last four years,” McConnell said recently on the campaign trail. “The Senate’s going back to work, and our first goal will be to see if there are things we can agree on with the president.”
McConnell is a creature of the Senate, adept at using its arcane parliamentary rules to his advantage. He knows how to tie the Senate in knots to deny the other side a victory, and Democrats, particularly Reid, contend that he has abused that power over the past eight years with a record-setting number of filibusters.
But McConnell also has a substantive track record as a dealmaker, working closely with Vice President Biden. While he has no personal relationship with Obama, McConnell would be the natural GOP point man in any such talks during the president’s final two years in office.
Over the years, McConnell has developed a public persona as stoic and unemotional, but he has an almost unique ability to provoke heated reactions from his adversaries. Kentucky Democrats, who have never been able to beat him in an election, despise him for the scorched-earth campaigns he has so successfully run against them for more than 30 years.
Democrats in Washington revile him as a partisan obstructionist, the main architect of a political strategy that they compare to setting fire to a village and then claiming credit for riding in on the firetrucks to save it.
On Saturday at Transylvania University in Lexington, where McConnell’s hero Henry Clay once taught law, Democrats mocked the senator’s claims of wanting to restore the Capitol’s grand traditions.
“It’s the same Washington, D.C., he spent the previous six years breaking,” Todd Hollenbach, the state treasurer, said at a rally for Grimes.
The Hollenbach family history with McConnell traces back to 1977 and illustrates the brass-tacks approach to politics that the would-be majority leader learned early in his career. Hollenbach’s father, also Todd, was the first person to lose to McConnell in a local campaign, for the powerful post of county judge in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.
Hollenbach still can’t believe what hit him in that campaign after he had served a couple of successful terms in the second-most-powerful post in the state. “The whole theme,” he recalled Saturday of the race 37 years ago, “was two terms was enough for anybody.”
McConnell’s senatorial ambition was evident early. “He always talked about the Senate. He talked about Henry Clay and he talked about John Sherman Cooper,” recalled Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a former Republican who worked side by side with McConnell in the 1968 Senate race organizing young Republicans.
Cooper was McConnell’s mentor, the moderate Republican senator who considered President John F. Kennedy an ally and supported much of the era’s civil rights legislation. It was as an intern for Cooper in the summer of 1963 that McConnell watched the March on Washington from the Capitol.
After he narrowly won reelection to his county judge post in 1981 — when his running mate, Yarmuth, lost his bid for county council — McConnell began to move around the state to prepare to run for Senate.
In Danville, a Democratic bastion at the time, he attended meetings with a group that billed itself as the “Good Ole Boys of the Grand Old Party.” He quickly won over the locals, but even back then McConnell was not a back-slapping charmer. “Never was. He’s not a warm and cuddly bear,” recalled Carol Geis, a retired accounting professor from the small town 80 miles southeast of Louisville. “A mind like a steel trap. He’s more than smart. Mitch is exceptional,” Geis said after a Friday rally in Louisville.
Ronald Reagan won Kentucky by 300,000 votes in 1984, narrowly pulling McConnell across the finish line to victory.
Once in the Senate, McConnell took the assignments that were better suited to learning the institution and gaining allies. He angled for a spot on the Appropriations Committee, where he learned the federal budget while also delivering federal dollars for projects throughout Kentucky to bolster his standing in the state.
He served as the top Republican on the Ethics Committee during the investigation of then-Sen. Bob Packwood’s sexual harassment of female staffers, turning on a fellow Republican whom he believed had disgraced the institution by fighting the charges.
He was chairman of the Rules Committee and ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee for four years, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for colleagues. Democrats like to note that during that time they gained five seats, and during McConnell’s time as minority leader he has repeatedly failed to get the majority.
After collecting all those chits, he ran for the No. 2 post, whip, in 2002. His opponent, then-Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), was stunned to learn that by the time he started asking for support, McConnell had already won. The same thing happened several years later, when Majority Leader William H. Frist (R-Tenn.) retired, as McConnell had quietly sewn up the race before internal rivals had mobilized.
With the Republicans consistently coming up short in recent elections, McConnell remained stuck as minority leader. On Tuesday night, coasting to his own victory and seeing good signs early in other races, McConnell delivered a valedictory speech that offered a slight olive branch to the White House, suggesting he was willing to reprise the deal-making role on some issues.
But he also signaled that he was ready to take the fight to Obama.
“Friends, this experiment in big gov’t has lasted long enough,” McConnell said, reassuring them of his fight: “I will not let you down.”