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Senate's top Republican McConnell calm in the face of criticism, crisis

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., discusses a painting of one of his Senate heroes: Henry Clay as he delivers his “Great Compromise” speech in 1850, on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in his office in Washington.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in Washington.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks to the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in his office in Washington.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks to the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in his office in Washington.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks to the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in his office in Washington.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Staffers of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stand outside his office on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in his office in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Addison Mitch McConnell has made a career of following in his heroes' footsteps and vexing critics who underestimate his political skills.

Now the Senate's top Republican is on the offensive against critics of the compromise he crafted with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to reopen the federal government through Jan. 15.

The deal ended a two-week government shutdown that McConnell terms “a foolish strategy.”

“I felt it was important to get us out of a shutdown that was overwhelmingly despised by the American people and achieved nothing toward getting rid of Obamacare,” McConnell told the Tribune-Review during an interview in his U.S. Capitol offices last week.

“All Republicans would like to get rid of Obamacare, but there's a Democratic Senate and president who think it is a terrific thing.”

Tea Party enthusiasts were as furious with McConnell over the deal as they were enthralled with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the face of the budget showdown.

Cruz forced the shutdown — against McConnell's wishes — by insisting it would bring an end to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Democrats, who control the Senate and the White House, didn't blink.

The deal to reopen the government was less than impressive, McConnell said, but “at least we didn't raise taxes.”

As for the future, he vowed: “There will not be another shutdown and we are certainly not going to default on the national debt.”

A born fighter

Born in Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1942, Mitch McConnell grew up in Louisville. He learned focus and perseverance when polio struck him at age 2.

His mother directed the toddler's daily physical therapy and took him to a spa in Warm Springs, Ga., the town where President Franklin Roosevelt, another polio victim, died in 1945.

At 71, he is Kentucky's longest-serving senator, and his office reflects how important history is to him. One of its paintings is of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay during his “Great Compromise” Senate speeches of 1850; McConnell explains the painting and the political event in great detail.

Clay — a former House speaker, secretary of State and part of a three-way electoral tie for president in 1824 — was known for his ability to reconcile the North and South. McConnell wrote his senior thesis in college on Clay, one of his two Senate heroes.

“The other would be the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper, who I had the honor of interning for in the '60s,” which he said “defined” his career.

Next year, McConnell will face a Republican primary challenge from a Tea Party hopeful, Louisville investor Matt Bevin, and possibly a general election battle with Democrat Alison Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.

Bevin, 47, calls the government-shutdown compromise a “sellout” and says McConnell “has stopped being effective.”

But members of both parties often underestimate McConnell's political talent and focus, said Larry Cox, who began working for him in 1981 at the end of his first term as a Jefferson County judge.

“I really never saw him coming,” said Todd Hollenbach Sr., 73, of Louisville, whom McConnell defeated for that judgeship in 1976.

A McConnell ad showed a farmer shoveling horse manure to counter Hollenbach's tax-cutting claims.

Such effective campaigning keeps McConnell in office, Hollenbach said: “His whole mode of operation has always been to raise a tremendous amount of money and use it to destroy the image of his opponent.”

Cox counters that McConnell “always knows what his goal is and sets out very methodically to get there,” whether that involves winning improbable elections or Senate cloakroom battles.

Not afraid of long odds

Cox, who retired in 2010, describes the five-term senator as serious with a sharp wit, “a very boisterous” sports fan, an avid fly-fisherman, and “very close to all three of his daughters.” (Divorced from their mother, McConnell in 1993 married Elaine Chao, the labor secretary under President George W. Bush.)

He followed McConnell to the Senate in 1984 but acknowledges that he really didn't prepare to move to Washington because “I'm not sure even (McConnell's) mother thought he would win.”

McConnell was down 22 points two weeks before that election, challenging incumbent Democrat Walter D. Huddleston, a minister's son in a state that rarely elected Republicans.

Then came another TV ad.

“Ten days out, we run an ad that featured a pack of bloodhounds running around looking for his opponent, who missed so many votes giving paid speeches around the country that we thought we should call him out on it,” Cox recalled.

Using humorous TV spots to attack a likable opponent became part of political science, he said.

It also laid the foundation for turning Democrat-blue Kentucky a deep Republican red, said Scott Jennings, a former McConnell Scholar at the University of Louisville.

Jennings, a TV reporter in Louisville when McConnell asked him to join his 2000 campaign, said long odds never deter the senator.

He hasn't always beaten such odds, however.

In 2010, he backed Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson over eye surgeon Rand Paul, a political newcomer, for the state's second Senate seat. Grayson lost by 24 points to Paul, the son of Texas congressman and GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul.

Afterward, liberal and conservative critics claimed McConnell was out of touch with constituents.

Jennings disagrees, saying McConnell helped to bridge the gap between so-called establishment Republicans and Tea Partiers. He cites McConnell's “effective partnership” with Paul and Paul's recent endorsement of him.

Asked to comment for this article, Paul's staff referred to the junior senator's comments last summer, when he called McConnell “a proven conservative who stands strong for Kentucky in the face of President Obama's big-government agenda.”

‘Very costly mistake'

The fate of a key item on that presidential agenda, Obamacare, depends on the 2014 midterm elections, according to McConnell.

“If I am the majority leader of the Senate and not the minority leader after the next election and … if we have a president of a different persuasion (after 2016), we are going to get rid of it,” he insists. “This is a very, very costly mistake.”

To control the Senate, Republicans must win seven seats in 2014. Experts agree they have the advantage. Democrats must defend 21 seats, seven in states that Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election. The GOP must defend 14.

Yet McConnell has been here before: In 2010 and 2012, Republicans failed to win back the Senate when untested or unpolished Tea Party candidates lost what should have been easy races.

Cox said those results were “awful” for McConnell and his inner circle.

Winning the majority leader's post would be a capstone to McConnell's career, he said, “but beyond that, he is deeply frustrated by the direction the president has taken the country.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at .

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