Op-Ed

Don’t heckle McConnell. Strategize and unseat him

‘Shame. Shame. Shame.’ Protesters gather outside KY GOP dinner featuring Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Protesters gathered in downtown Lexington ahead of the Republican Party of Kentucky's Lincoln Dinner, which featured White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.
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Protesters gathered in downtown Lexington ahead of the Republican Party of Kentucky's Lincoln Dinner, which featured White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.

Last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was jeered and shouted at while dining with his wife at the Havana Rumba restaurant in Louisville. The hecklers, although disruptive, were expressing legitimate frustration — and not just about policy.

Whether refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, refusing to speak out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election interference or refusing to denounce President Trump’s racism, misogyny and anti-democratic behavior, McConnell has repeatedly trampled on constitutional norms and violated democratic traditions during his tenure as majority leader.

Kentuckians have every right to be concerned and every right to be angry.

But yelling at and confronting McConnell in public won’t help anything. Rather, the only way to end McConnell’s assault on democratic institutions is to vote him out of office when he’s up for re-election in 2020. Kentucky voters on both sides of the aisle who are horrified by McConnell’s leadership and disregard for democratic norms need to begin working now — in 2018 — on creative strategies for unseating him.

McConnell is as beatable as any senator in the country. In fact, according to a new Morning Consult poll, only a third of Kentuckians approve of McConnell’s job performance, while more than half disapprove of it, making him the Senate’s most unpopular member.

Unseating him in 2020, however, won’t be straightforward. Kentucky is a solidly red state, so it’s unlikely that a Democrat can beat McConnell in a typical head-to-head race. A primary challenge is equally unlikely to succeed. McConnell is the leader of the Republican Party, which gives him immeasurable resource advantages, not to mention lots and lots of name recognition.

So how do you beat him?

Two things need to happen. First, a well-funded conservative appalled by Trump’s behavior and McConnell’s acquiescence should run against McConnell not only in the GOP primary, but also as an independent in the general election. The idea wouldn’t be to win the general, but rather to attract the votes of other conservatives who are unhappy with McConnell but can’t stomach voting for a Democrat. The question is whether there’s a credible conservative in Kentucky with enough courage and conscience to mount this kind of challenge.

Second, Kentuckians need to find their version of Beto O’Rourke — the young, inspirational Democratic candidate currently making inroads in his campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz in red Texas.

A member of the Democratic Party establishment won’t do. The state needs someone who energizes voters on both sides — someone who has a strong social media game and is willing to storm the state at breakneck pace to listen to people, understand the nuances of their problems, and propose solutions that help ordinary Kentuckians live their best lives.

A center-left candidate with the right balance of sincerity, empathy and charisma could be competitive in the presence of a well-funded third-party or independent challenger on the right. Whether this candidate is Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones or someone else, the organization-building needs to begin now.

But what Kentuckian would vote for a center-left candidate? Surprisingly many. Although the majority of Kentuckians identify as Republicans, they share many of the same concerns as people on the left. They want better health care, more job security and better pay. They have been ravaged by inequality, neoliberalism and technological change. A Democrat who can speak to those concerns persuasively and charismatically may have a shot — just ask all the people in Eastern Kentucky who voted for Bernie Sanders.

Most Americans who are concerned with the erosion of democratic norms are rightly focused on the midterms next month. But Kentuckians have an added responsibility. McConnell is an existential threat to our democracy — a broker more concerned with accumulating personal power at the national level than he is with representing his state and preserving democratic norms and institutions.

Heckling him at restaurants won’t work. Coming up with a strategy for unseating him in 2020 just might.

Roy Germano, a Louisville native, is a senior research scholar and adjunct associate professor at New York University and author of the book “Outsourcing Welfare.”

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