He’s up for reelection next year, and he has a potentially strong challenger in Amy McGrath, who announced her candidacy Monday. McGrath is an appealing candidate, but she has an uphill climb ahead of her, in ways that illuminate the polarized, partisan environment we find ourselves in.
You can watch McGrath’s excellent announcement video above. What’s interesting about it is the way she takes a familiar and often trite argument but applies it to somebody who for a change actually deserves the criticism. Here’s part of what she says, over photos of McConnell through his career:
Everything that’s wrong in Washington had to start someplace. How did it come to this? That even within our own families, we can’t talk to each other about the leaders of our country anymore without anger and blame? Well it started with this man, who was elected a lifetime ago, and who has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise. Where dysfunction and chaos are political weapons. Where budgets and health care and the Supreme Court are held hostage. A place where ideals go to die.
I’m ordinarily a critic of Washington-bashing in campaigns, in large part because it’s usually accompanied by a message like “I’m no politician, and I’ll find common-sense solutions to our problems and get things done.” It’s never true, in that the candidate isn’t going to change Washington, and the problem isn’t an inability to “get things done.”
In this case, however, McGrath is right. There are two figures more responsible than anyone else for making Congress what it is today: Newt Gingrich, who made politics more vicious and mean than it had been before, and McConnell, who realized that in the pursuit of power any norm could be violated, any rule broken, any tactic justified if you’re shameless enough. And if you win, you’ll pay no price for what you did along the way. It’s no accident that one biography of McConnell was titled “The Cynic,” nor that McConnell counts the theft of a Supreme Court seat as one of the proudest moments of his career.
McGrath, a retired fighter pilot and lieutenant colonel in the Marines, talks a lot about her military service, in part because that’s where she made her career and in part because she hasn’t held elected office before. She lost a bid for a House seat in 2018 to incumbent Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr, falling short by just three points in a district Trump won by 16.
Which was an admirable performance, but she has a major problem she’ll have to find a way to solve, and it goes by the name of Kentucky.
Simply put, the state is really, really conservative. Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 30 points. The last time a Democrat won a Senate race there was 1992, when longtime senator Wendell Ford won his last reelection.
Which brings us back to McConnell’s unpopularity, which isn’t just national but is also true at home. Despite having been elected and reelected six times, McConnell is deep underwater. In this poll, he’s the only senator in America whose disapproval cracks 50 percent; in this one his disapproval was 56 percent, with only 33 percent approving.
But a lot of that comes from Republican voters who say they don’t like the job he’s doing. In the latter poll (from Public Policy Polling), his approval among Republicans is only 47 percent, compared with the 87 percent approval among Republicans President Trump gets.
McConnell will tell you that’s just the price of being majority leader: You have to take a lot of heat, and people might blame you for whatever they don’t like about how Washington is working, at least for a while. The question is, are Republicans who are displeased with McConnell going to vote for a Democrat to replace him?
And are they going to do it in a presidential election year? On one hand, turnout will be high, which will likely work to McGrath’s advantage should she be the nominee. On the other hand, the presidential race will intensify feelings of partisanship, making it harder to persuade Trump supporters to split their ticket. Which is what McConnell is hoping for; his team has already put out a video portraying McGrath as too liberal for the state and tying her to Democratic figures such as Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
We don’t yet know what sort of campaign McGrath is going to run; for instance, maybe she’ll mount a huge mobilization that brings large numbers of non-voters into the system. Given the tantalizing prospect of sending McConnell home, she probably won’t have trouble raising money, especially if the race starts to look winnable. But what it may take for her to prevail is an absolute Democratic blowout on the national level, an election that not only sends Trump packing but reverberates all the way down the ballot.
Could that happen? Sure. While it’s very unlikely, nothing is impossible.