Mitch McConnell's ad maker is as loyal as a bloodhound

Herald-Leader Political WriterJune 30, 2014 

Republican ad maker Larry McCarthy has helped Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaigns for three decades.

Larry McCarthy has been in the Mitch McConnell ad business since the beginning. Literally.

He even appeared in one of McConnell's earliest and most famous — or infamous — ads.

When McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, ran his first Senate race in 1984, he and his ad maker, Roger Ailes, unleashed a pack of bloodhounds to look for Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston, his Democratic opponent, in an ad that 30 years later is a part of national political advertising lore.

In that ad, a man with bloodhound dogs goes searching for Huddleston, an effort to portray the senator as having missed key votes. The hunter comes across several nondescript people who point him in Huddleston's direction.

With his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned, wearing sunglasses and a "big gold chain" and reading Variety by the pool, McCarthy, then 32, pointed to his right to offer assistance to the hunter and his dogs.

"That was a little moment of political history, and I got to be a part of it. So that's fun," McCarthy told the Herald-Leader.

Now three decades later, Ailes is the president of Fox News and McCarthy is leading McConnell's advertising efforts as he battles Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes for a sixth term and possibly the job of U.S. Senate majority leader.

With McConnell locked in a tight race and national observers questioning whether he can hang on, McCarthy remembers the circum stances surrounding that 1984 ad as proof that McConnell will be fighting until the end.

In early August 1984, McCarthy was in the campaign headquarters with McConnell when his pollsters (those are the same this year, too) "plopped down" a weighty poll in pre-email days.

"They said, 'Well, we've been campaigning, we've been on the air off and on for eight months, and we're still 44 points behind,'" Mc Carthy recalled. "And McCon nell didn't blanch. He said, 'I'm gonna keep raising money, and you guys do what you need to do.'

"But McConnell never ever gave up. Most candidates would have folded right then and there."

After that, the bloodhounds were unleashed, and McConnell shocked the political world with his first win. While McConnell was rising in the ranks of the U.S. Senate, McCarthy grew into a star ad maker for the Republican Party.

It was McCarthy's "Baggage" ad, produced for the pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future, that nuked Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire when Romney desperately needed a win. And in 2004, it was McCarthy who made "Ashley's Story," the ad that told the tale of President George W. Bush's visit with a young girl whose mother was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

In 2010, he helped elect two Republicans — Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk — in the purple-to-blue states of New Hampshire and Illinois.

Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP ad maker and Romney's top adviser in 2012, said McCarthy "has done some tremendous work and is a big, big talent."

"He has an easy manner that wears well in campaigns, and (he) is a shrewd strategist," Stevens said.

Now McCarthy is again looking to fill Kentucky's airwaves with ads that will help put McConnell over the top in November.

Given McConnell's reputation as a pioneer in the maligned field of political mud-slinging, Kentuckians might be surprised to learn that McCarthy said the campaign would not engage in character attacks.

"It is gonna be about her positions," McCarthy said. "There'll be no personal attacks."

The central thrust of McConnell's ad strategy, though, is "the fact that she is basically Barack Obama and Harry Reid's candidate," he said.

Jonathan Hurst, Grimes' campaign manager, said "it doesn't matter how many consultants Mitch McConnell hires over the next four months."

"He has no plan for Kentucky's future after being in Washington for three decades," Hurst said. "Kentuckians deserve better than a lame duck senator only concerned with saving one job: his own."

McCarthy sees things differently, predicting McConnell will win by 3 to 5 percentage points, but he is complimentary of Grimes' ad maker, Mark Putnam, calling him "certainly one of the best in the business."

McCarthy said it was an advantage working with a candidate he has known for so long.

"He knows me. I know him. I don't have to learn a new candidate here," Mc Carthy said.

And despite the b-roll footage of McConnell that gave way to the national trend of "McConnelling," McCarthy said McConnell, unlike a lot of other candidates, doesn't care if he appears in his own ads or not.

"All McConnell wants is an ad that works the best," he said. "He is absolutely committed to a spot that moves the most numbers."

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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