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Mitch McConnell got ‘rich’ the old-fashioned way

The Lincoln Project released this ad about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on May 28. (Video: The Lincoln Project)

“Mitch didn’t have money when he went to Washington 35 years ago. Today, he’s one of the richest guys up there … After 35 years, Kentuckians are still waiting for the kinds of opportunities Mitch worked so hard to give himself. With another six years of Mitch McConnell, from the hollow to the horse farm, we’ll still be waiting. And Mitch? He’ll just be richer.”

— voice-over of television ad “Rich Mitch,” by the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, released May 28, 2020

This is a slick ad produced by a political action committee run by Republican never-Trumpers. It’s airing in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who is seeking his seventh term as senator from the Bluegrass State. It’s also received more than 750,000 views on YouTube.

But it’s also a familiar — and misleading — script.

The Facts

This ad is cleverly written. It never really says that McConnell became “one of the richest guys” in the Senate because of backroom deals he did as a lawmaker. But it certainly implies that. We view these kind of attack ads through the lens of an ordinary viewer. What would they think if they heard:

— McConnell didn’t have money when he went to Washington

— He’s now very rich

— He worked hard to give himself opportunities

— Kentuckians will get nothing while he gets richer.

It is correct that McConnell is now the seventh-richest senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — an image that flashes on the screen. But how did he get that wealth?

We explained this the last time McConnell sought reelection, in 2014, when this attack playbook was used by his challenger at the time, Alison Lundergan Grimes. She charged that McConnell “quadrupled his net worth on the backs of hard-working Kentuckians that can’t afford it.”

McConnell first entered the chamber in 1985. A senator earned $75,100 in 1985, and that has risen to $174,000 as of 2009, Senate records show. (No pay raise has taken place since then.) He earns a bit more as the Republican leader — $193,400.

Lawmakers are required to file personal financial disclosure forms listing their assets within broad ranges (such as $5 million to $25 million), making it difficult to get a precise sense of a lawmaker’s wealth. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that McConnell has a net worth of $34,137,534, much of it invested in index stock funds or municipal bond funds.

Before 2008, McConnell’s wealth was well below the Senate average. In 2004, his average net worth was $3.1 million, compared with a Senate average of $14.5 million.

So what happened in 2008? His financial disclosure form tells the story — suddenly there appeared a tax-exempt money market fund, valued at between $5 million and $25 million, listed as a “gift from a filer’s relative.”

A McConnell spokesman in 2014 told The Fact Checker that this was an inheritance for McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, after her mother died in 2007. Forbes magazine obtained the will of Ruth Chao in 2019 and reported that “she personally had nearly $59 million of assets to her name, according to an inventory filed with her will.” Forbes estimated that about $9 million was passed to Elaine Chao, “rather than the $25 million maximum that was reported on McConnell’s disclosure.” Her father, James S.C. Chao, founded what is today a major shipping company, the Foremost Group, but the Transportation Department has said she has no affiliation with the shipping business.

Chao, who married McConnell in 1993, has earned significant income on her own, serving on corporate boards that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to her financial disclosure report when she joined President Trump’s Cabinet.

Indeed, Chao’s filing has a section labeled “Spouse’s Employment Assets & Income and Retirement Accounts,” intended to show assets related to the filer’s spouse’s employment, business activities or other income-generating activities. Chao reported that McConnell has assets of between $110,000 and $300,000 in these accounts. He also earned $145,000 for a book advance on his 2016 memoir.

In other words, McConnell got rich because he married well, not because of deals he cooked up in Washington.

The ad also lists various ways in which Kentucky, one of the nation’s poorest states, ranks low among other states in terms of job opportunities. The implication is that McConnell did well as his state was left behind, but McConnell has long directed federal money toward his home state, including nearly $1 billion at the end of 2019. The Transportation Department Inspector General has been investigating whether Chao’s office was giving preferential treatment to Kentucky.

“It’s a fact that Rich Mitch, a fan of soft-money deals, has seen his wealth increase in ways few Kentuckians will ever experience, while his state remains in decline,” said Keith Edwards, spokesman for the Lincoln Project. “Rich Mitch has spent his career cutting deals to consolidate his power while gutting the rules of the Senate, demolishing our democracy in the process.”

“Leader McConnell has steered billions of dollars to Kentucky during his time in the Senate,” said Kate Cooksey, press secretary for his reelection campaign. “As the only congressional leader not from New York or California, Leader McConnell is consistently instrumental in making sure Kentucky receives needed resources.” She added: “Senator McConnell’s decades of leadership on behalf of all Kentuckians will long outlast three days of dishonest ads from this group of D.C. consultants.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Lincoln Project’s statement gets at what might be an effective attack on McConnell — his role in weakening rules on campaign fundraising and his use of Senate rules to thwart opposition. But that may be too in-the-weeds or difficult to frame, so instead the Lincoln Project decided to aim for an easy cheap shot. McConnell is far richer than most Kentuckians — the state ranks 48th in percentage of millionaires — but he didn’t earn that because of his government service.

Grimes lost badly against McConnell, so apparently this tactic falls flat. We gave this line of attack Three Pinocchios before and will do so again.

Three Pinocchios

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