Democrats are increasingly focused on making Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a political villain as they attempt to win back control of the Senate in next year’s election and galvanize the party’s liberal base.
That effort gained new momentum on Tuesday as Amy McGrath, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat pilot, announced she would challenge McConnell (R-Ky.) and blamed him for turning Washington into “something we despise” in a campaign video that drew millions of views.
While McGrath faces a steep climb against McConnell in ruby-red Kentucky, which President Trump carried by 30 percentage points in 2016, she is expected to raise significant funds from national Democrats and provide the party with a relentless and high-profile opponent.
McGrath’s entry comes two weeks after Democrats succeeded in recruiting Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon to run against Sen. Susan Collins (R). Gideon previewed her campaign by putting McConnell front and center in her announcement video, showing several clips of him and criticizing Collins for working with the GOP leader and Trump to overhaul the federal judiciary and tax code.
“The majority leader has extraordinary power and is the primary obstacle to getting things done here in the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview Tuesday. “He is also the face of acquiescence to Trump and the Republicans’ lack of a spine. The most effective arguments are often about a personality, a personal face and a story, and this story has the great virtue of being true.”
The latest critiques reflect a growing movement within Democratic ranks to make the 2020 election cycle not just a referendum on Trump, but also a purging of McConnell and entrenched Republicans who have given conservatives immense sway over policy and judicial vacancies while enabling Trump’s priorities, from hard-line immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border to sweeping deregulation.
Republicans hold a 53-to-47 majority, and Democrats see opportunities to reclaim the Senate with an unpopular president at the top of the ticket and the GOP defending nearly twice as many seats. But a handful of marquee recruits, like former state legislative leader Stacey Abrams in Georgia, have declined to run, and a few presidential candidates have shown no interest in abandoning a White House bid for a Senate campaign.
Joining the anti-McConnell chorus are the presidential candidates, who have called the Republican a direct threat to making progress on signature party issues such as gun control, health care and climate change.
“We’re not going to get anywhere as long as Mitch McConnell has the keys to the car,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential contender, said earlier this year at a forum in Austin.
That sentiment was evident at last month’s Democratic presidential debates in Florida when 2020 candidates were asked by moderators about their plans to deal with McConnell if they win.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who favors getting rid of the legislative filibuster to eliminate obstacles if Democrats win the Senate, said she would push McConnell “from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
McConnell later said he was “thrilled” with the mentions.
The fixation on McConnell has echoes of how Republicans used Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a strategic bugbear in their 2010 campaign to capture the House majority, and consultants say it could help Democrats draw attention to contests that until recently have flown under the radar as the crowded presidential primary has heated up and Trump makes headlines.
“Whether Trump wins or loses, a Democratic Senate is the ultimate way of stopping him and his agenda, once and for all,” Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic senatorial aide, said. “And in a hyperpartisan environment, making McConnell a symbol could serve as a powerful inducement.”
Still, Manley said, Democrats must work to raise McConnell’s profile nationally and keep up sustained attacks because Trump’s overwhelming presence makes McConnell an effective but far lesser known foil.
McConnell, one of the nation’s highest-ranking leaders, is the polar opposite of Trump in terms of personality: an exceedingly dry, clipped and occasionally droll politician. He relishes his reputation as the “grim reaper” of the Senate who blocks Democratic legislation and liberal ambitions.
Democratic leaders, such as Pelosi, have worked to remind voters this summer that McConnell should be held responsible for his alliance with Trump and the conditions at migrant detention centers. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday that she is “appalled by the conditions” facing families who have crossed into the United States.
“Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about the children,’’ Pelosi said in a recent interview with the New York Times.
McConnell did not express any concern about McGrath on Tuesday, telling reporters it would be a “spirited race.”
“Particularly since I’ve become leader of my party in the Senate, I’ve noticed I get more attention than I used to,” he said. “I look forward to the contest,” and, he added, “I actually enjoy campaigning.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called McGrath a “great candidate” and said “she realizes this is a tough fight. She realizes that Mitch McConnell will throw the kitchen sink at her.”
“We are going to be going on the offense wherever we can,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is definitely a tougher map for Republicans.”
Schumer in April started calling McConnell’s Senate a “legislative graveyard” and has worked behind the scenes since then to build a messaging strategy around what Democrats say is McConnell’s intransigence. That tag line has been taken up by other Democrats. Last month, a dozen Democratic freshmen marched to McConnell’s office to deliver a letter demanding that he hold a vote on an anti-corruption bill.
“It’s going to be a drumbeat that’s going to continue for months on the things that people care about,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.), one of the freshmen, said at the time.
McGrath, 44, narrowly lost a House race last year against Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.) and has since remained in the political spotlight. In December, she said she would not run for governor, stoking speculation that she would run for the seat that McConnell, 77, has held since 1985.
McConnell’s campaign responded with a video of its own, which used McGrath’s statements from her House race to portray her as “too liberal for Kentucky.” The video included clips of McGrath calling Trump’s proposed border wall “stupid” and advocating for single-payer health care.
She is also shown comparing the way she felt after Trump’s election in 2016 to the way she felt after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump tweeted his support for McConnell Tuesday evening, calling him “our great Kentucky senator” and writing, “Why would Kentucky ever think of giving up the most powerful position in Congress, the Senate Majority Leader, for a freshman Senator with little power.”
In a statement, McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden said McGrath has “a heckuva platform that we will be delighted to discuss over the next sixteen months.”
While the 2020 Senate landscape is more favorable to Democrats than in the brutal 2018 midterms, where they saw a net loss of two seats despite a massive surge in national Democratic turnout, the uncertainties of the presidential race and a decline in ticket-splitting offer them only a narrow path to winning a majority next year.
Democrats would need to capture at least three additional seats and win the White House to control the Senate in 2021.
Thirty-four Senate seats are up next year, with Republicans defending 22 and Democrats 12. Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Collins are widely considered the most vulnerable Republicans.
Democrats, meanwhile, have to defend two seats in states Trump won in 2016 — Alabama and Michigan.
But Democrats are buoyed by possible Republican pitfalls in Alabama and Kansas, where party infighting has complicated Senate primary races.
In Alabama, Roy Moore, the former state Supreme Court justice who lost to Sen. Doug Jones (D) in a 2017 special election amid accusations of sexual misconduct with underage girls in the late 1970s, is running again. Trump, who backed Moore in 2017, has called for him to stand down.
In Kansas, Kris Kobach — the former Kansas attorney general who lost his race for governor last year and has struggled to win votes in suburban areas of his state because of his hard-line views on immigration, voting rights and fiscal policy — announced his Senate bid on Monday to fill the Republican seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Roberts after four terms.
McConnell expressed optimism Tuesday when asked about both races. “In all likelihood, the voters of Alabama are not going to need any advice from us,” he said. “I think they’ve seen quite enough of Roy Moore, and I anticipate we will have a different nominee in the fall election.”
On Kobach, McConnell said, “The Kansas race is open, and I’m not sure the president agrees with me, but I’d like to see the secretary of state (Mike Pompeo) run for the Senate in Kansas.” He said he continues to try to recruit Pompeo, who had represented Kansas in the House. The filing deadline for the Senate race is next June.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is also facing two Republican primary challengers: Garland S. Tucker III, chief executive of a Raleigh investment company, and farmer Sandy Smith. On the Democratic side, Cal Cunningham, a veteran and former state senator courted by national Democrats, recently announced his candidacy.
Democrats, while enthused about McGrath and Gideon, among others, are eager for some presidential candidates to end their White House campaigns and “jump into the Senate mix,” Manley said.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, all of whom have failed to gain traction in the polls, are at the top of most Democrats’ recruiting list.
John Wagner and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.