Politics & Policy

Kentucky’s Scrappy Go-Getter

There's a lot of fight in the man The Economist called "grey" and "owlish."

He’s arguably the most powerful elected Republican in America. He’s certainly the most powerful Republican official in Washington since the departure of George W. Bush. That may not be saying much, given the GOP’s diminished influence, but if President Obama’s plans to nationalize health care fail, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be one of the main reasons. As John David Dyche’s new biography, Republican Leader, shows, there’s a lot of fight in the man The Economist called “grey” and “owlish.”

The book portrays McConnell as a scrappy go-getter. He won his first race for political office — Jefferson County judge — over incumbent Todd Hollenbach largely thanks to one effective television advertisement. The ad, “Horse Sense,” used a down-home farmer to counter Hollenbach’s dubious claim that he was a tax cutter. The farmer said, “Maybe Hollenbach ought to have my job, because in my business, I deal with that kind of stuff every day,” tossing a shovel of manure toward the camera as he spoke.

During his first race for the U.S. Senate in 1984, McConnell trailed the Democratic incumbent in the polls and in fundraising. Dyche writes that on one fundraising trip through eastern Kentucky, “McConnell quickly realized that he was in the wrong house, but still managed to wrangle a $4,000 donation from his accidental hosts and $2,000 more from a relative who lived next door.” Most Americans aren’t familiar with this enterprising side of McConnell. Given their poor political position, Republicans may have to rely on the sort of “foot-in-the-door” tactic for which McConnell is well suited.

Still, conservatives may be wary of this quintessential “career politician,” and his records on immigration and pork-barrel spending seem disconcerting. Dyche, who says he doesn’t agree with McConnell on every issue, attempts to absolve the senator of some of these sins. In 2006, McConnell did support the immigration bill that angered grassroots conservatives, but argued that it was a step toward “balancing our tradition as a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws.” He also supported the subsequent border-fence bill and opposed the hated “comprehensive immigration reform” the next year.

Also in 2006, when President Bush requested about $95 billion in emergency funds to cover military costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Senate tacked on another $14 billion full of special-interest spending. Dyche explains that while McConnell voted for the bill so as not to vote against the necessary military spending, he “put together a letter from thirty-five senators stating their willingness to sustain a presidential veto. This helped Bush issue a credible threat, which produced the bill he had initially requested.”

This is why there’s something to be said for McConnell’s senatorial longevity. McConnell’s image as an insider may rankle anti-incumbent conservatives, but Republicans can benefit from their leader’s extensive knowledge of the Senate’s many rules.

McConnell’s influence on the Kentucky Republican party, perhaps the least-understood aspect of his career, is the most impressive takeaway from the book. The image of McConnell as Republican kingmaker may be unfathomable outside the Bluegrass State, but it may be his most lasting legacy. Due largely to McConnell’s direct involvement in local and state politics in the past three decades — from working with a Democratic county commission as a Republican county judge to assuming a leadership role in recruiting House candidates for the GOP — once-Democratic Kentucky has become a two-party state.

Republican Leader is an enlightening look at the Republicans’ last line of defense against the Obama juggernaut. The president has yet to meet his match on the rhetorical stage, and McConnell certainly doesn’t fit this role. But given the vastness of the task ahead of them, congressional Republicans need leadership with a grasp of procedure and politics. They can rely on Mitch McConnell to employ his characteristic savvy against the Democrats’ agenda.

Michael Warren, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, studies economics and history at Vanderbilt University.

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