HAZARD, Ky. — Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has one of the most incongruous political profiles of any elected official in government today: solidly accomplished, almost indispensable in Washington, persistently vulnerable at home. Or so it seems.
McConnell is concerned enough about his 2014 reelection to have begun running television ads in March — 20 months before Election Day, and the earliest of any senator up for reelection next year.
And that is without any declared opponent.
None of this is lost on Democrats, who have dreams about the man who has been so central to their nightmares: If they can find just the right person to run against McConnell, maybe this time, they can defeat one of their great political and legislative antagonists in Washington.
This may be just a dream, but not an entirely unreasonable one.
Polls suggest McConnell, 71, is not a beloved figure in the state he has represented in the Senate since 1984. One conducted in January for the Louisville Courier-Journal found twice as many people saying they plan to vote against him (34 percent) as for him (17 percent), even without knowing who else would be on the ballot.
The minority leader’s need to solidify his standing with voters at home has implications for his role in Washington. As McConnell himself often notes, he was a key figure in brokering the three biggest bipartisan deals that have been cut during the Obama years — the two-year extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2010, the one that averted a government default in 2011 and the fiscal cliffhanger of 2012.
But while McConnell has been front and center in the dealmaking, he has been equally adept at stopping things from happening when he chooses. His tactical decision to force the Democratic majority to get at least 60 votes for almost anything it wants to pass out of the Senate has made him very unpopular among Democrats.
McConnell is “the very essence of what’s wrong with Washington right now,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) in a recent interview with WHAS (Channel 11) in Louisville. “Kentuckians are tired of the obstruction, they are tired of the failed policies and they are looking for new leadership.”
That McConnell is regarded these days as Washington’s No. 1 obstructionist is not exactly a liability in most parts of Kentucky, a state where Obama carried only four out of 120 counties in the 2012 election.
“He’s a stone wall against his adversaries,” Nan Gorman, the mayor of Hazard, said by way of introducing the senator for a speech in her city. “Maybe we should call him Senator Stonewall McConnell.”
The mayor, by the way, is a registered Democrat, as are most voters on the rolls in Kentucky.
Yet Democrats are struggling to find anyone willing to run against him. Actress Ashley Judd took a pass. Grimes, whom most consider McConnell’s strongest potential challenger, is expected to decide soon whether to jump into the race.
In the meantime, McConnell has decided to select his own opponent, and he has chosen an easy target — the Obama administration.
People here take their grievances and grudges seriously. This is, after all, the epicenter of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. And many, particularly in depressed coal country, look at the Obama administration and its Environmental Protection Agency the way those two families viewed each other from opposite sides of the Tug River.
“Wherever I go in our state, and particularly when I am in the eastern part of the state, people ask me: What does President Obama and his administration and his EPA have against Kentucky?” McConnell declared during a recent appearance in heavily Democratic Pike County.
“Just because their hostility is undeclared doesn’t make it any harder to see,” he added. “This administration is dead-set on trivializing your livelihood and our economy all in pursuit of their own radical ideology.”
In Hazard, Perry County executive Denny Ray Noble — yes, another Democrat — stood onstage with McConnell and exhorted: “When you go vote, vote for your jobs. Vote for where your money is coming from. . . . Our president has shut us down. So when you go vote, remember that.”
McConnell understands the rhythms of his state and has shown that he is willing to play rough to win. A recently leaked video of his strategists discussing their ammunition against Judd, before she opted not to run, shows they are planning to be on the offense again.
That was true all the way back to his first bid for the Senate in 1984. Although his only previous elected office had been county executive, McConnell became the first Republican to win statewide office in Kentucky in 16 years and the only one to knock off a Democratic incumbent in the Senate that year.
He did it largely on the strength of one brutal television ad that featured a pack of baying bloodhounds searching for then-incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston, who had missed a number of Senate votes because he was giving paid speeches elsewhere.
Democrats say they think they can show that McConnell is now the one who has moved out of step with Kentucky.
The most recent polling by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — and it has done a lot of polling over the years — registers McConnell’s job approval at a dismal 35 percent, with 62 percent expressing a negative view. That marks a sharp decline from what the DSCC saw in 2008, shortly before his last election, when McConnell was in positive territory, with 51 percent of Kentucky voters approving of his performance against 42 percent disapproving, DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said.
But Democrats are not the only potential problem for McConnell.
He got crosswise with the tea party in the 2010 GOP senatorial primary, when he supported Secretary of State Trey Grayson against Rand Paul, who went on to win the nomination, the election and hero status with the anti-establishment forces in the party.
But Paul and McConnell have since become allies. As added insurance, McConnell hired Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his own 2014 operation. Benton is also married to Paul’s niece.
Some also sense a shift in McConnell’s tone.
“I’ve noticed that he gets more conservative closer to the election,” said Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a libertarian think tank and advocacy organization in Kentucky. “He articulates it more around the election. We hear he’s attended more tea party rallies, and is generally more boisterous in his conservatism.”
In an interview in his Capitol suite overlooking the grandest view in Washington, McConnell said he has been here before.
Where he had spent under $7 million to cruise to reelection in 2002, it took $21 million to pull out a much narrower win in 2008, McConnell said.
“You get a lot of different kind of attention these days when you become leader of the party. It’s kind of become a cottage industry of both sides to see how much you can beat up whoever the leader is,” he added. “So it’s a different kind of campaign. It’s like a national campaign. If you think of 2014, there’s really only one race in the country of any kind of national significance — it’s mine.”
The minority leader dismisses the idea that poll numbers taken in the absence of an opponent are a sign that he is vulnerable.
“That’s the argument you make when you’re trying to recruit a candidate and they’ve been working very hard to do that, and my assumption is at some point they will,” McConnell said.
“They’d like nothing better than to tie me down and keep me occupied in Kentucky in a cycle when we have a lot of opportunity for gain, and I fully understand that,” he added, referring to the fact that Democrats next year have a far more challenging electoral map than the Republicans do, which means their continued control of the Senate is in question.
And McConnell is not shy about reminding the state of what it stands to lose if it kicks the Senate Republican leader out of office. Grimes is 34 and never ran for office before 2010.
“Look, I don’t have any sense of entitlement. I don’t own this job,” McConnell said. “I think I know how to run a campaign. The core of it is basically going to be a choice, and in what way would it be better to replace a leader of one of the two parties in the Senate with a rookie who might not ever be in the position of influence and leadership for our state and our country that I am, and certainly wouldn’t be there in the next couple of decades?
“That’s an argument I’m prepared to make,” he added. “I made it successfully in ’08. I’m confident I can make it successfully again in ’14.”
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