The faceless figure on the bright red T-shirt wears a Western shirt, open at the collar, and his dark hair is swept to the side. Behind him, a dusting of cocaine coronates the likeness of an apparent drug kingpin. The back of the shirt declares the wearer a “cartel member.”
But the man on the shirt is no Pablo Escobar. It’s Cocaine Mitch — a.k.a. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose status as the Senate majority leader makes him one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
And the shirt is no attack ad. No, it’s the newest, hottest-selling item on McConnell’s campaign website, where supporters can buy one for $35. The senator’s campaign celebrated the shirt’s virality on Wednesday by tweeting a GIF that showed stacks of money being counted. They were moving a lot of product.
McConnell and his campaign’s embrace of the nickname is an attempted reclamation of a moniker once deployed against them. Roughly a year ago, GOP Senate candidate from West Virginia and former coal magnate Don Blankenship aired a campaign advertisement that referred to McConnell, without any context, as “Cocaine Mitch.” It was an apparent nod to a years-old allegation that the family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, has a shipping background connected to drug dealers.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has debunked this claim and awarded it “Four Pinnochios,” meaning Blankenship had absolutely no evidence to support his peculiar assertion.
But in the months since that ad aired — and Blankenship lost his primary race — McConnell and his campaign have repeatedly adopted the name. It’s a sign of the senator’s good humor, his willingness to take a joke, said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff.
“This all stems from Senator McConnell having a pretty good sense of humor for what, at the time, was a pretty slanderous attack,” Holmes said. “It sort of became an online alter ego for Senator McConnell. . . . Supporters have rallied around it and love it.”
But some policy experts have criticized McConnell and his campaign for selling products that reference and, they say, make light of drug issues.
“There’s something troubling about a politician raising money in this way when so many people are languishing in prison for harsh penalties related to cocaine and other drugs,” said Michael Collins, the director of Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs office.
Another critic, Eric Conrad, who has worked for Democratic campaigns, pointed out an apparent double-standard in McConnell’s promotion of the Cocaine Mitch brand, writing on Twitter that conservatives like McConnell also typically favor harsher penalties for drug offenses.
McConnell’s campaign responded, writing, “If we sell enough #CocaineMitch shirts, we’ll buy you a sense of humor.”
But Andrew Kessler, who founded Sling Shot Solutions, a firm that specializes in behavior health policy, wasn’t laughing when he first saw the shirt.
“One-hundred-ninety-two people die every day from a drug overdose,” Kessler said, citing government data. “I’m sorry if my sense of humor is not shining through.”
Kentucky, in particular, has been hard hit with a wave of overdose deaths, fueled in large part by the opioid epidemic. In 2017, McConnell’s home state had among the highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in the country, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
“It shows me that he is not taking the problem of our current overdose epidemic seriously,” Kessler said. “It would be bad enough if he were saying it as Senate majority leader, but to be from Kentucky and doing that, it’s reprehensible.”
But Holmes said there’s no question about where McConnell stands on drug policy.
“I don’t think anyone has done more for fighting drug addiction than Senator McConnell has,” he said.
And his supporters, Holmes contended, recognize the irony in the shirts. They’ve been so popular, he said, that the campaign plans to make another batch.