McConnell Tries to Shrug Off His Senate Job

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the November elections. He's also the leader of the Senate Republican caucus. The two facts are not a coincidence.

Politicians who climb the leadership ladder in Congress often find success is their greatest obstacle to re-election. This fall, when Republicans stand a strong chance of taking back the majority in the Senate, McConnell's Washington ambitions could end up keeping him from finally ascending to the coveted position of Senate majority leader.

McConnell is being closely pressed in his home state of Kentucky by his Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Right now, six months until the election, it is anyone’s guess who will win. But McConnell’s high profile in Washington sure doesn’t help.

Grimes, whose father, Jerry Lundergan, has been active in Kentucky Democratic politics for decades, highlights her opponent's reputation as a Washington partisan. "I'll be representing the people of Kentucky, not a political party," she told The Huffington Post in February. "And I'm the kind of person—unlike Mitch McConnell—who can deal with everyone."

McConnell is not the first to suffer from too close an association with what goes on on Capitol Hill. "We know that the nature of leadership positions are oftentimes not really helpful to your electoral career," said Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University. "We saw that with Tom Daschle. We saw it with Harry Reid last time."

The problem is that leadership means being partisan, and partisanship is unpopular. McConnell's approval ratings are low but potentially improving. In February, a Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass poll found 60 percent of voters disapproved of McConnell while only 32 percent approved, putting his approval rating lower than even President Barack Obama's. A survey from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling in early April found the president had a 36 percent approval rating. A New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll this week put his approval at 40 percent.

As Lasley notes, over the past few cycles senators who head their party's caucus have faced tough re-election campaigns. In 2004, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a popular Democrat from South Dakota, lost his re-election bid to Republican John Thune.

"Thune worked very hard to convince people that Tom Daschle changed, that he wasn't the same person that they had elected all these years, that he had gone Washington, that he had gone more liberal," said Steve Hildebrand, who served as Daschle's campaign manager. Those attacks were "very effective."

The video footage of Daschle operating as Senate leader—holding weekly press conferences, talking about the party's national agenda—was used against him back home. And it didn't help that in a conservative state like South Dakota, the national Democratic Party was sometimes at odds with the views of Daschle's constituents.

"Our state is pretty conservative, and so when you're trying to be the Democratic leader of the United States Senate, there's definitely times when that presents a challenge," Hildebrand said. "If you're fighting for the top priorities of your political party and they don't align perfectly with your state, then it's going to be an issue in your re-election."

With Daschle out, Harry Reid of Nevada became the Democratic minority leader. By the time he ran for re-election in 2010, Reid was both the Senate majority leader and the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the country. To this day, pundits marvel at the fact that he survived.

Early in his career, Reid saw the benefits of harnessing anti-Washington sentiment in the Silver State. "When Harry Reid first ran for the Senate in 1986, his slogan was 'Independent like Nevada,'" said Jon Ralston, the dean of Nevada political reporters.

"As he got into the Senate and moved up the ranks of leadership, he obviously had to grow more partisan," Ralston said. "And as he grew more partisan, his numbers here suffered. That has been the trajectory of his career.

"You can't be first the whip and then the minority and then the majority leader of a party and not be a partisan. That's your job," he continued. "Of course, that's going to cause you to have problems back home."

Reid ultimately won his race in 2010 by running a stellar campaign. Years before the election, he built up his state party, registered thousands of Democratic voters, then planned a brilliant campaign and executed it flawlessly. Ralston called it "the best campaign I've ever seen."

McConnell now finds himself in a leaky boat. Having served nearly 30 years in the Senate, he embodies establishment Washington. And in the Tea Party era, when you are a Republican, that's a liability.

McConnell has embraced the Tea Party as best he can, campaigning with Tea Party hero Rand Paul and hiring Paul's 2010 campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his campaign. But being in a GOP leadership position sometimes means bucking the Tea Party, as when McConnell voted to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit. Lasley, the political scientist, notes that part of McConnell's low approval is due to discontent in his own party.

It's no wonder McConnell ended up with a Tea Party challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. Luckily for McConnell—or perhaps to his credit—Bevin has gained little traction and is expected to lose to McConnell in the May primary.

Of course, there are plenty of other dynamics at play in McConnell's race—as there were in Reid's and Daschle's. Daschle found himself in a campaign involving wedge issues like abortion and gay rights that distanced him from his constituents. Nevada was one of the states hardest hit by the Great Recession, and Reid was largely associated with Obama in an election in which voters registered their disapproval of the president.

As in Reid's case, the climate doesn't favor McConnell. "I also think the fact that there's a pretty significant anti-incumbent, anti-Congress feel out there plays into" McConnell's low approval numbers, Lasley said. Those sentiments are magnified for leadership figures, whom Lasley described as being "particularly caught" by those sentiments.  

"If I were running that campaign against McConnell, I would make it more about character traits than I would about issues," Hildebrand said. "I would try and convince the voters of Kentucky that he's not effective in representing the state of Kentucky anymore.

"I would also say he is the problem in Washington. He is why we can't get anything done. He is a complete obstructionist," he added.

Those are exactly the kinds of attacks McConnell is trying to head off by portraying his leadership role as an asset. In his first major ad buy of the race, he touts his power in Washington as a boon to Kentuckians.

In the ad, Robert Pierce, a throat cancer survivor, praises McConnell for helping to secure cancer screenings and compensation for energy workers, like him, who were exposed to radiation at a nuclear facility in western Kentucky.

"He gives a voice to Kentucky's working families," Pierce says in a painful whisper caused by his cancer. “Mitch gets results for Kentucky that no one else can."

On the campaign trail, McConnell has embraced this strategy. "I'm going to try to appeal to all Kentucky voters," McConnell said in February, "about the future of the state and the significant loss of clout … if Kentuckians trade in, in effect, a potential majority leader."

Rather than hiding his leadership position, McConnell is framing the race as a choice between two majority leaders next year. Do Kentucky voters want to keep Reid as majority leader? he asked constituents at a campaign event in February. "Or do we want a leader of the majority from Kentucky, who believes in coal, who believes in the kind of America I think all of you and I think we ought to have?"

By embracing his leadership role, McConnell is also reframing the debate: being powerful in Washington doesn't mean forgetting about Kentucky, it means taking care of Kentucky.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes locked in a close race. The election could go either way. There is one silver lining for McConnell to grasp: Political forecasters like data wiz Nate Silver project a win for him.