He’s the reason President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court didn’t even get a vote. He calls himself the Grim Reaper for Democratic legislation. Jon Stewart recently went after him for stalled 9/11 victims fund legislation.
Could Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) be an effective boogeyman for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates? His name comes up quite a lot on the campaign trail, especially among all the senators running for president.
“If we're in the majority and Mitch McConnell wants to block us on the kinds of things our country needs and the kinds of the things they elected me and other people to enact, then I'm all for getting rid of the filibuster,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Tuesday.
“Mitch McConnell is impervious to give and take, unless he’s taking everything,” Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) said on MSNBC on Monday.
It doesn’t seem like anyone is making McConnell their main target. That’s a spot reserved for President Trump, of course. But it could make sense for Democrats running for president to bring him up, especially to win over primary voters.
McConnell is the reason conservatives have a majority on the Supreme Court, which could last for generations if President Trump wins a second term and gets to name replacements for aging justices. He has blocked legislation popular with Democrat base voters on gun control and health care and climate change. And even if a Democrat wins the White House, McConnell is likely to be part of the picture post-2020. It’s an uphill battle for Democrats to take back the Senate or knock McConnell off in his reelection.
“Trump’s got to be issue number one, two and three,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, “but McConnell should be in there in the top five.”
And with so many Democratic senators running for president — seven — McConnell has been their main political opponent for years. As the Senate leader, McConnell decides what bills get voted on and when. So it’s ostensibly good politics to explain how they would get around him if they were president.
Hang on. Talking about the filibuster and Supreme Court nomination rules and the Senate leader — this is all pretty insidery stuff, said GOP strategist Doug Heye. It’s one reason he doesn’t think this is a strategy that can gain much traction beyond a dedicated primary voter base.
“I think most voters are focused on economy, jobs, health care,” he said, “and the independent voter isn’t going to be rallied up over Elizabeth Warren saying, ‘I’m going to get rid of Mitch McConnell and the filibuster.’"
Congressional leaders have been effective election foils in the recent past. In 2010, Republicans used Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House of Representatives, to knock Democrats out of the majority for the next eight years.
But there were key differences between then and now, said Heye, who was at the Republican National Committee then and part of the decision to highlight Pelosi. The 2010 elections were midterms, so Pelosi was at the forefront in a way that McConnell is not in 2020. (Well, McConnell does have an election next year, but that’s a different story.)
And Heye said Republicans held up Pelosi as a symbol for a very unpopular law. Obamacare had just been passed by a Democratic Congress, led in part by Pelosi.
“When we used Pelosi, it was to protest something specific,” he said. “We were responding to an issue as much as a person.”
Manley agrees it’s risky to try to weaponize a member of Congress, even a prominent one like the Senate leader. He worked for former Democratic Senate leader Harry M. Reid, whom Republicans also tried to make a Washington boogeyman. It didn’t really work. “It’s sometimes difficult to demonize your opponent” if the person is “not that well known,” he said.
Of course, McConnell did a lot to raise his name recognition among liberals when he blocked Obama’s pick for an open Supreme Court seat in 2016. Today, McConnell flouts that moment by unabashedly saying he would fill an election-year vacancy for Trump if it came open.
McConnell’s blockage of Judge Merrick Garland didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference right after he did it. Republicans ended up controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House that year.
But Manley is hopeful that this time — faced with a Supreme Court that could be conservative for decades in part thanks to McConnell — could be different. So if talking about McConnell gets more Democrats energized to vote, then it’s worth talking about McConnell, he said.
Heye sees things the opposite way. In his view, constantly referring to McConnell is a sign of Democrats’ weakness rather than strength.