Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Despite full plate, McConnell making GOP control of state House a priority

WASHINGTON — It's a severe understatement to say Mitch McConnell had a lot going on Tuesday.

The day started with a veto threat from the White House, peaked when he was sworn in to his lifelong dream job and continued with visits from family members and a string of interviews with visiting members of the Kentucky media before receptions that night.

But less than four hours after Vice President Joe Biden asked McConnell, the U.S. Senate's new majority leader, to raise his right hand, take the oath of office and officially begin his sixth term, McConnell's focus wasn't entirely trained on beltway doings.

"I guess today they're doing their elections, right?" McConnell asked at one point during an interview with the Herald-Leader.

Yes, he was talking about the state House Republicans' leadership elections in Frankfort.

That Republicans failed to win control of the state House despite his landslide win over Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes did not sit well with McConnell, and both he and people close to him say he is intent on winning GOP control of the chamber in 2016 after nearly a century of Democratic control.

While he has a full plate — leading a new Senate majority, trying to protect that majority in two years with a far more challenging election map, battling President Barack Obama on a host of issues — McConnell has long held the goal of turning the Bluegrass state completely red.

"All the signs are that Kentucky's just getting close to breaking out our way," McConnell said.

While McConnell is famously hard to read, there was an unmistakable edge to his voice as he discussed state Republicans' failure to win the lower chamber last year, even as he has taken some of the blame.

"In looking back at it, I didn't have much time to deal with it this last cycle because of Senate races around the country and my own contest and everything else," he said. "But in kind of doing an after-action review of what happened, I think we probably lost it on the day of the filing deadline."

As the Herald-Leader previously reported, McConnell met in early December with the majority of House Republicans at a private meeting in Louisville to begin plotting strategy for 2016.

One of the major thrusts of that discussion was simple: start recruiting better candidates and do it now.

"Too many people went uncontested, and I didn't see the kind of focus (from Republicans) that the Democrats had on keeping it," McConnell said this week. "In short, I just don't think from a campaign point of view it was very skillfully done, which is not to criticize anybody in particular."

McConnell did not criticize House Majority Leader Jeff Hoover, who has taken blame from his peers for not making gains in the House, although Hoover survived a challenge to his leadership position Tuesday.

Still, McConnell and others believe that bad recruiting is what cost them the state House in a year when Republicans were celebrating in states around the country. And he dismissed as excuse-making the suggestion by some Republicans that uncertainty caused by redistricting was to blame for the lack of quality candidates.

Consider: There were five House districts that voted for McConnell by 59 percent or more where the Democratic candidate ran unopposed.

That's the kind of number that jumps out in an after-action report.

McConnell said Tuesday that "in order to not repeat the same mistakes of the past, what I volunteered to do was to provide whatever expertise I may have in this area that would be useful to them to make another run at it in 2016."

The first of his suggestions became official this week when Republicans named state Rep. Jonathan Shell of Lancaster to lead an unofficial campaign-focused apparatus as a "campaign chairman."

McConnell said he suggested that state Republicans "make a part of their leadership something akin to the senatorial committee or congressional committee up here."

"I thought that was a good thing for them to do because they need somebody who's got the time, the interest and can totally focus on the business of actually winning the elections," the senator said.

Shell said by phone Thursday that he has had "several conversations" with McConnell and his lieutenants in recent days and weeks, and that they are "100 percent focused on this."

Democrats say they're ready for McConnell's best effort. Gov. Steve Beshear met with House leaders last month to discuss 2016 strategy and the Democratic House caucus has already held its first fundraiser.

In a statement provided by a spokesman, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Thursday that "we're already preparing for the election cycle ourselves. We'll be ready."

McConnell repeated for the umpteenth time this week that he will stay out of the Republican gubernatorial primary this year, but he said he views it as a sign of success that at least three candidates will vie for the Republican nomination while Attorney General Jack Conway faces only token opposition so far in the Democratic primary.

"When I started my career we had to beg people to run for governor," McConnell said. "So now you've seen a complete change here. You're going to have a vigorous primary on the Republican side and maybe no primary at all to speak of on the Democratic side, and I think it's a reflection of the reddening of Kentucky."

The senator said he will "absolutely" work hard for whomever emerges from the Republican primary this May. But along the way, people close to McConnell said, his focus will remain on the state House.

In the days following Grimes' walloping, Democrats who were hoping to put McConnell out to pasture last year took solace both in retaining their 54-46 majority in the House and in their belief that by keeping McConnell occupied, Grimes had helped state Democrats.

Democrats won't have that luxury two years from now.

McConnell will once again have a lot going on, especially as he looks to protect his new U.S. Senate majority with a map that is far more favorable to Democrats than it was last year. But it's clear, from Capitol Hill in Washington and more than a year before the candidate filing deadline, that McConnell wants a red Frankfort, and he will be trying hard to make it a reality.