Mitch McConnell is the longest-serving Republican Senate leader in American history, with a tenure of 11 years, five months, and 10 days as of Tuesday. Under his tenure, the GOP has taken control of the House, the Senate, and the White House — making the Republican Party the most powerful it’s been in eight decades.
So why is the most successful Republican leader ever the most unpopular senator in America? Why are conservative PACs supporting “anti-McConnell” candidates? Why did one Mississippi Republican Senate candidate brag that “I won’t be answering to Mitch McConnell” if he wins his race?
CNN called Mitch McConnell “the GOP’s Nancy Pelosi” — a politician other politicians need but try to avoid getting too close to (like how Ted Cruz declined to endorse him for majority leader back in 2014). One conservative commentator and podcast host told me that McConnell is viewed by others on the right as “soft and too slick by half.”
But since taking over the Republican leadership as minority leader in 2007, and becoming majority leader in 2015, Mitch McConnell has outlasted, out-dueled, and out-negotiated both his opposition and members of his own party.
A decade after taking control of a political party in crisis and on the wane, Mitch McConnell somehow, someway, brought the Republican Party to the promised land.
The penalties of power
Mitch McConnell has always been a party politician. In a New York Times profile from November 2006, he’s described as a “tough Kentucky legislative operator” with a “reputation for partisanship” (though he promised at the time to try to work with Democrats to “try to do good things for the country”). But in the midst of the Tea Party’s rise in 2009 and 2010, playing party politics gave McConnell an unpopular reputation among conservatives: as the prototypical “establishment” politician. I reached out to McConnell’s office for this piece but did not receive a response to my questions by press time.
In 2010, McConnell endorsed the GOP’s chosen pick, Trey Grayson, for Kentucky’s seat in the Senate — declining to endorse then-Tea Party darling (and eventual winner) Rand Paul (Grayson had described Paul’s libertarian views as “strange”). In 2014, he went a step further — saying of Tea Party challengers, “I think we are going to crush them everywhere. I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.” In response, conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote:
The Republican leaders prefer their billionaire donors with their cosmopolitan interests. These people just want carve outs for themselves. They are not asking for an actual shrinking of government like Main Street is. The GOP Leadership really needs an excuse to totally ignore Main Street and give Wall Street comprehensive immigration reform, tax breaks for big business, etc. … Crush or be crushed — Mitch McConnell just clarified this election.
I reached out to Erickson but didn’t get a response.
That’s been the right’s problem with McConnell, similar to issues the left has with Nancy Pelosi: He’s not a true believer; he’s a political arm-breaker, well-positioned to make deals but largely unwilling to take big risks (like to repeal Obamacare, for example). Again and again, McConnell has put money behind centrist candidates running against more conservative options, and to populists and other conservatives, his legislative style is more about dealmaking than winning. No wonder, then, that far-right pundits view him as an obstacle akin to Bernie Sanders.
I reached out to a conservative writer and podcast host who told me, “He’s been a professional politician for over four decades. He started his career as a centrist and only apparently moved to the right when it was politically advantageous to do so. McConnell isn’t a conviction politician, and his attacks against his more conservative opponents have been brutal.”
And Tea Party groups, and other conservatives, responded. In 2011, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips wrote in an email to members during negotiations over the debt ceiling, “[John] Boehner and McConnell are the predatory credit card issuers of the Entitlement State, they’re about to renew Obama’s cancelled Mastercard, and they want to saddle America’s grandchildren with all of the bills.”
Nearly a decade later, Tea Party groups are still trying to push McConnell out of his leadership position. In 2017, leaders from five groups — FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservative Fund, Tea Party Patriots, For America, and the Media Research Center — wrote a letter to McConnell that read in part:
You and the rest of your leadership team were given the majority because you pledged to stop the steady flow of illegal immigration. You have done nothing. You pledged to reduce the size of this oppressive federal government. You have done nothing. You pledged to reduce, and ultimately eliminate the out-of-control deficit spending that is bankrupting America. You have done nothing. You promised to repeal Obamacare, “root and branch.” You have done nothing. You promised tax reform. You have done nothing. You don’t even show up for work. … It is time for you and your leadership team to step aside, for new leadership that is committed to the promises made to the American people. America is too good for you to lead it.
But the letter also mentions McConnell’s real political hurdle: the Republican president of the United States.
Donald Trump versus Mitch McConnell
While just 35 percent of Republican voters approve of Mitch McConnell’s job performance, 91 percent of Republican voters support Donald Trump — who has repeatedly criticized McConnell. Last August, when asked if McConnell should still serve as majority leader, Trump said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, if he doesn’t get repeal and replace done, and if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question.”
Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2017
No wonder, then, that the biggest Trump-allied conservative outlets have been the harshest on McConnell, including Breitbart, which has been laser-focused on McConnell’s alleged nefarious ties to the Chinese government. These claims arose more prominently during the West Virginia Republican Senate primary, where candidate Don Blankenship referred to McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” because of cocaine found on a ship owned by McConnell’s in-laws, the Chao family. (It should be noted that enmity between McConnell and Breitbart is by no means new.)
It’s also not a surprise that during the 2018 primaries, conservative challengers to incumbent candidates have bragged that their opponent is supported by McConnell. Take this from last September: “The Citizens United Political Victory Fund (CUPVF) is backing Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the conservative candidate for U.S. Senate in West Virginia, against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked choice, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV).”
Yet McConnell has soldiered on and, somehow, kept winning — getting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, for example (and keeping Merrick Garland off it). The “anti-establishment” candidates who targeted McConnell, like Roy Moore and Blankenship, have failed. And for some conservatives, McConnell‘s purported failures could be viewed more reasonably as something else: the cost of politicking.
I spoke with Andrew Klavan, a novelist and podcaster with the conservative outlet Daily Wire, who told me, “Sometimes with House and Senate leaders, there’s a disconnect between what seems possible to the general public and what actually is possible when wrangling cats and looking realistically at various local electorates. McConnell’s failure to arrange the destruction of Obamacare, his unwillingness to back Trumpian candidates he considers unelectable, and his virtual shutdown of the legislative process coming up to the midterms can either be read as canny strategy or recalcitrance and cowardice, depending on how you look at it.”
Eleven years, five months, and 11 days after taking over a Republican Party staring at a nationwide defeat, Mitch McConnell is the most disliked senator in America, and nearly 60 points less popular than the president he was largely skeptical of. But he’s stayed the course. That’s how he’s won.