Sam Youngman: 2014 Mitch McConnell finds inspiration in 2012's Mitt Romney

Herald-Leader Political writerAugust 25, 2014 

"He [Obama] wants to turn America into a European-style social-welfare state." — Mitt Romney, 2012

"These people wanted to Europeanize America, and they've gone steadily in that direction." — Mitch McConnell, 2014

Kid Rock's Born Free has moved from selling candidates to selling Chevy trucks. Clint Eastwood isn't talking to an empty chair, probably. The Kentucky Wildcats didn't just win the national championship — though they came oh-so-close.

So no, we haven't all been transported in a time machine back to 2012. And U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not Mitt Romney.

But even casual observers of Kentucky's U.S. Senate race could be forgiven for double-checking their calendars. From his message to his donors and even some of his music, McConnell is channeling Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, in an effort to win re-election in a state where Romney won overwhelmingly.

The deja-vu actually started with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who dusted off 2012 Democrats' "War on Women" point of attack then gave us all a short ride in the Delorean with President Barack Obama's debunked "Mediscare" attacks from two years ago.

But McConnell has put the race in a full-on flashback as he tries to beat Grimes by again beating Obama in a state where Romney won with 60 percent of the vote.

McConnell has long echoed Romney's warning about Obama's attempts to make the United States look like Europe.

And on free trade agreements, McConnell last week sounded almost exactly like Romney when he decried the lack of NAFTA-like deals Obama has made since his time in office. (Grimes also advocated for free trade at last week's Kentucky Farm Bureau "Measure the Candidates" forum.)

Obama has signed three trade agreements, but Republicans — Romney and McConnell specifically — argue that it was President George W. Bush who negotiated those deals, a charge the Obama campaign called "absurd" in 2012.

The senator even borrows from the 2012 version of himself, using the same line in his stump speech around the commonwealth that he used to defend Romney's activities at Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Romney co-founded.

"I think the view of this administration is that if you're making a profit you must be up to no good. You must be either mistreating your employees or cheating your customers or both," McConnell said then and now.

There is no mystery as to why the rhetoric is so similar. There are two reasons: First, McConnell and Romney are cut from the same cloth, both what U.S. Sen. Rand Paul might describe as Chamber of Commerce Republicans; Second, Romney's large margin of victory in Kentucky in 2012.

It's a no-brainer that McConnell would try to replicate the success of a federal Republican who won 116 of 120 counties just two years ago.

But McConnell also has Romney-like drawbacks. In particular, Democrats were able to hang a sign that reads Out of Touch around Romney's neck, and they're now offering to let McConnell wear it a while.

After the National Journal reported that Delta CEO Rick Anderson wrote a $10,000 check to McConnell's Bluegrass Committee a week after the two had a meal in the Senate Dining Room, the Grimes campaign and state Democrats seized the opportunity.

The Kentucky Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, charging that McConnell was using his position to sell influence.

The Democrats' complaint probably won't get much traction because they would need to somehow prove that McConnell broke Senate rules by asking for money during the meal.

"I paid for lunch. He's a friend of mine. I've known him for years," McConnell said when the Herald-Leader asked him about it last week. "The fact that a friend of mine would support my campaign should not be an unusual thing."

But that salvo from KDP, like almost every attack line coming from Democrats against McConnell, was more about painting McConnell as out of touch with Kentucky than it was any kind of legal recourse.

It's true that McConnell and Anderson's friendship goes back to the 1990s when Anderson and McConnell's wife, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, served on the board of Northwest Airlines together.

It's true that Anderson has been giving to McConnell and Kentucky Republicans for at least a decade. And it's true that McConnell can't use any of the money donated to his leadership PAC on his own re-election campaign.

It's also true that those kinds of qualifying details rarely make it into a 30-second attack ad.

Romney's "47 percent" remark made it easy to finish the job of cementing in voters' minds that the former Massachusetts governor and multi-millionaire was out of touch. For McConnell, the magic number is 30 — the number of years McConnell has been in office, something Grimes often reminds voters of more than once in the same sentence.

Still, McConnell's saving grace this November might well be what Democrats believe drove Romney's numbers so high in Kentucky: He isn't Obama.

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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