Mitch McConnell suddenly confronts rough political road

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 19, 2013 

— Usually a picture of self-assured calm and control, Mitch McConnell is having a rough week.

When the Senate worked its way out of a nasty fight over presidential nominations and the filibuster, the credit went not to the Senate Republican leader but to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McConnell’s clout with his own caucus was questioned. It seemed uncharacteristic for the Kentucky Republican, long regarded as a master of the Senate’s byzantine rhythms.

McConnell’s penchant for deftly navigating political landmines is in for a lengthy test. He’s an insider’s insider, but he can’t appear to be so back home. He’s been known for keeping his raucous caucus in line, but there have been cracks. And while he has a solid conservative voting record, it’s not conservative enough for the increasingly prominent groups that are influencing Republican voters.

McConnell is the Democrats’ top incumbent target in the 2014 Senate elections. His race is expected to be the nation’s most expensive. “I think it’s going to be easy to make this a close race, but it’s going to take a lot to beat him,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

McConnell’s camp disputes any notion that the week’s turmoil exposed fresh political cracks.

“I don’t know that the week was so rough,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s deputy chief of staff. “The people who were going to get confirmed got confirmed.”

Any notion that McConnell’s losing control of Republican senators is misguided, Stewart said: “Nobody controls the caucus, but he has the leadership position. He’s not a dictator.”

McConnell loyalists tout a big electoral advantage: That conservative voting record in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 21 years, where President Barack Obama got 37.8 percent of the 2012 vote.

They’re also buoyed by McConnell’s history of winning tough races. Only once, in 2002, did McConnell get more than 55 percent. He also can boast that if elected, he could very well be the Senate majority leader. Republicans will probably need a net gain of six seats next year to win control of the chamber, and polls suggest that’s within their reach.

Democrats see strong potential for likely nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state. Because she has no Washington record, she can paint McConnell as a creature of the Capitol who’s forgotten the plain folks of the Bluegrass State.

“The race is going to be whether McConnell can make this a race against Obama or Alison can make this a race against McConnell,” said former Kentucky Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a Democrat.

This week’s Senate chaos gives Democrats attractive material. Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced “a new campaign about real consequences Kentuckians suffer at the hands of Mitch McConnell.” Thursday, the headline on its press release was “McConnell Losing Influence.”

Their target is the turmoil over the “nuclear option,” a Democratic-driven effort to change Senate rules to make it easier for non-judicial nominees to win confirmation with 51 votes. Sixty is now needed to curtail debate.

McConnell wanted an accord months ago, and in June he told the White House to withdraw two controversial National Labor Relations Board nominees, replace them with two others, and the process would move forward. He also wanted assurance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., not to invoke the nuclear option for the rest of this Congress, which runs until January 2015.

Reid said no. So McCain and other Republicans, who were willing to accept votes on controversial nominees without imposing a long-term 51-vote threshold, negotiated.

The White House would replace the two labor nominees, as McConnell had suggested, and Reid would drop the nuclear option for five other nominees with votes pending.

At Reid’s request, McConnell met with the Nevada Democrat just minutes before Reid and McCain went on the Senate floor Tuesday to announce their agreement (Reid wanted to tell McConnell about the two labor nominees). McCain became the public face of compromise. Democrats were lavish in their praise, suggesting that the maverick Republican had saved the Senate.

Republicans stood behind McConnell.

“Sometimes when you look at the sensibilities of where people are and what’s going on back in their states and all those kind of things, different people need to play roles,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Privately, there was grumbling. Senators said McConnell told them he could have gotten a better deal, even as he told reporters he was pleased. Stewart said that’s not unusual. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said.

Such maneuvers are likely to further tarnish McConnell with diehard conservatives, a problem that’s been building for months. During last month’s immigration debate, a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” crafted legislation that won Senate approval, as 14 Republicans backed a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Some conservatives were furious at the Gang, and that McConnell didn’t use procedural devices to stall or dilute the bill, even though his caucus was solidly behind moving forward and won the ability to offer amendments. But to the right, the debate was another example of why conservatives need to be wary.

Their ire was stirred in January, when Congress and Obama agreed to raise taxes as part of a budget deal. ForAmerica, a conservative group, began running an ad picturing McConnell with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, asking “Whose Side Are You On?” Talk show host Glenn Beck lumped McConnell with McCain and other mainstream Republicans, saying he’d “written those guys off.” The conservative Club for Growth rated McConnell’s votes 24th among the 47 Republicans, saying he voted “right” 74 percent of the time last year. His lifetime rating is 84 percent.

So far, McConnell doesn’t appear to have a serious conservative challenge, and Republicans dismiss the notion conservatives will stay home in November 2014. McConnell did vote no on the immigration bill, he ranks ninth on this year’s Heritage Action conservative scorecard, and he regularly addresses the Senate on the evils of the 2010 health care law.

Kentucky Republicans are counting on voters seeing the bigger picture. “McConnell’s a known, and he’s been voting conservative for years,” said Louisville-based Republican consultant Ted Jackson. “That is Kentucky.”

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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