Last week, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2014, was the target of what appears to be a coordinated liberal smear campaign. Such partisan teamwork is certainly not unprecedented or exclusive to the Left. However, the recent activity warrants some additional scrutiny of the various groups involved.
Within a span of several hours last Tuesday, the following occurred: Left-leaning polling group Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a Kentucky Senate poll showing a number of state Democrats “within striking distance” of McConnell, the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC launched a microsite targeting “Beltway Mitch,” and the liberal magazine Mother Jones published an audio recording of a McConnell campaign meeting, which appears to have been obtained secretly (and possibly illegally) by individuals with ties to Progress Kentucky, a left-wing super PAC that had previously come under fire for posting racist tweets about McConnell’s wife. Mother Jones followed up its original story with an item suggesting that McConnell may have violated Senate ethics rules, after top officials with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised the issue on Twitter.
Days later, liberal watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed complaints with the Senate ethics committee, as well as the FBI, calling for an investigation into McConnell’s proposed campaign tactics. Finally, on Friday, the left wing, labor-funded group Americans United for Change unveiled a television ad campaign tying McConnell to al-Qaeda.
“This is Gestapo kind of scare tactics,” Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, said in an interview with Mike Huckabee last week. “We’re not going to stand for it.”
The flurry of activity reflects the professional Left’s strong desire to unseat McConnell. Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported on a secret meeting of prominent liberal interest groups in December 2012, in which attendees discussed targeting the five-term incumbent. They have long despised him for his opposition to campaign-finance restrictions, as well as for his use of the filibuster to block prized liberal-agenda items such as card check and cap-and-trade. A “non-editorial employee” of Mother Jones also attended the session, which took place at the National Education Association headquarters.
CREW was also represented at the session, according to Mother Jones. The staff of the ostensibly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization includes former employees of Senators Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), and Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), former Senator Joe Biden (D., Del.), Representative John Conyers (D., Mich.), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for American Progress. CREW co-founder Norm Eisen has close ties to the White House. He served as President Obama’s “ethics czar” until 2010 and is currently the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen was also Obama’s classmate at Harvard Law, as well as a top fundraiser for the president.
Despite its open partisan leanings, PPP is a respected polling firm whose results are generally regarded as accurate. Some of its past actions, however, have raised questions about the firm’s intentions. In March 2012, for example, PPP asked Alabama and Mississippi Republican voters if they believed in evolution, thought Obama was a Muslim, or favored a ban on interracial marriage. The Daily Beast’s Michelle Cottle challenged the relevance of these questions, which were exclusive to PPP’s polls of southern states, arguing that asking such questions of GOP voters “smacks not so much of political research as cultural profiling.” “This PPP report has all the earmarks of a poll taken with the specific, if perhaps unconscious, goal of confirming all of the nation’s very worst biases about the South,” she wrote.
Additionally, the firm drew criticism for its August 2012 poll of the Missouri Senate race, conducted the day after GOP candidate Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comments were broadcast. The poll showed Akin with a slight lead (44 percent to 43 percent) over Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. Akin cited the poll in defending his decision to remain in the race, despite calls from prominent Republicans, including Mitt Romney, to drop out. Other polling conducted in the days following Akin’s controversial remarks showed McCaskill leading by several points; she would go on to win by 16. PPP denied accusations of foul play.
Some Republicans suspect that PPP’s recent poll, and the corresponding attacks on McConnell, may be part of an effort to persuade Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) to enter the race; PPP showed Grimes trailing McConnell by just four points.
The barrage of anti-McConnell activity has raised eyebrows among conservatives due to the way many liberal activists and affiliated organizations seem to be knocking McConnell within days, if not hours, of one another.
The involvement of the FBI has also raised the specter of a criminal trial, if the recording leaked to Mother Jones is found to be illegal. Douglas Davis, the treasurer for Progress Kentucky, has already resigned his position as a result of the investigation. “I have resigned my position as treasurer and did not and do not condone any allegations of illegal activity that might have taken place,” he told NBC News.
McConnell, meanwhile, is laughing all the way to the bank. According to the Associated Press, he has raised more than $12 million for the race, including $1.8 million in the first quarter of this year.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.