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Bill Straub: Mitch is in for another term and setting a record, but ‘lovable’ as a warm puppy he really isn’t


As if running up the score on an overfunded and overrated Democratic opponent wasn’t sufficient, supporters of Senate Majority Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch” McConnell now apparently want you to believe the lawmaker who revels in being called the Grim Reaper is really as lovable as a warm puppy.

Scott Jennings, a top-notch GOP operator, recently penned an op-ed for The Courier Journal of Louisville, in which he extolled the virtues of our boy Mitch, insisting he is “the most popular Kentucky politician in modern history,” and that his smashing re-election victory over Amy McGrath by almost 20 points on Nov. 3 established that “the myth of Mitch McConnell’s unpopularity is finally dead.”
 
“Accept the truth, guys: Kentuckians love McConnell and reward his conservative positions, stature, record, and calm disposition (a frequent target of scorn by the dumb pundits) with their votes,” Jennings wrote. “He’s not a backslapper, but he gets stuff done, keeps his wits about him, and has firmly planted Kentucky at the center of the political universe.”

Now no one should begrudge a home run trot to anyone with ties as close to McConnell as Jennings, regardless of how smug the results. And, indeed, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch has leveraged an overwhelming string of victories as he continues as the longest serving senator in the history of the Commonwealth.


The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

McConnell’s vote-getting ability has never been disputed, at least since his razor-thin upset victory over Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston, D-Elizabethtown, way back in 1984. No one who took even a passing gander at his most recent race against McGrath thought she had as good a chance at winning as a two-year-old has trying to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball.

But winning isn’t enough for Jennings and other McConnell folks who find themselves chasing the ghosts of previous Kentucky pols like Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Owensboro, Vice President Alben Barkley of Paducah, and others who really were beloved by their constituents.

But that sort of magic ain’t there for McConnell. Kentuckians will head to the polls in droves to perform what they view as their duty to vote for the man from Louisville on Election Day but it’s a stretch to say they’re doing so with love in their hearts.

Polls generally show McConnell is more popular than the gout but not by much. A survey conducted by Morning Consult, released in January, showed him coming in 99th in the 100-member Senate in popularity among his constituents, with only 37 percent of Kentucky voters expressing their approval while 50 percent offered their collective thumbs down, giving the GOP leader a net approval rating of minus 13.

But there’s a saving grace – he picks his enemies well. McConnell is definitely viewed with greater affection by most of the Commonwealth’s residents than the Democratic Party, which seems to be viewed with the jaundiced eye one might expect for COVID-19.

Aye, there’s the rub.

There’s an old joke, often told, about two men hiking in the woods who find themselves being chased by a bear. The first man asks “How are we going to outrun this bear?” The other guy replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

Mitch McConnell has proved more than capable of outrunning the Kentucky Democratic Party, hence his success. It’s certainly not his glowing personality.

The fact is Kentucky is now a thoroughly Republican state. The collapse of the Democratic Party, and the resultant rise of the GOP, would make a terrific doctoral thesis. On this score, from the Republican perspective at least, McConnell deserves all the credit in the world. But the political game of musical chairs that has transpired over the past 20 years or so is mind-boggling and certainly works to his advantage.

Briefly, from 1927 to 2003, Kentucky had one Republican governor – Louie Nunn from 1967 to 1971. Over the last 17 years the Commonwealth has had two GOP heads of state – both were defeated for re-election for being thoroughly incompetent but their election is illustrative of the great switcheroo.

Democrats controlled the state from the post-Civil War era to the turn of the 21st Century. Now you’ll find that five of the six members of Congress are Republican. It’s been eight years since Democrats held as many as two seats in the lower chamber. Republicans have maintained both Senate seats for almost 22 years. Republicans claim 75 seats in the 100-member state House of Representatives, 30 of 38 in the Senate.

McConnell’s electoral success has nothing to do with him being a lovable scamp we all adore. It has everything to do with the voter’s revulsion for the Democratic Party.

And where does that come from? It’s often been noted that there really are only two issues that mean anything to the Kentucky electorate, abortion and guns – they’re agin the former and fer the latter. Democrats have been depicted as the party that favors aborting fetuses even after they’ve been delivered – a neat trick, I must admit – and invading the sanctity of your homes to confiscate the Uzis, AK-47s or whatever else is in the gun case.

Those are not popular opinions in Kentucky, McConnell and others have used the issues to their advantage and they’ve gone a long way to change the flow of the river.

There are other factors. Among the states, Kentucky ranks third in the percentage of residents who describe themselves as evangelical protestants. Pew Research in a 2019 report placed the total at 49 percent, behind only Tennessee and just a tick behind Alabama.

Evangelicals are heavy voters and they pull the Republican lever like it’s nobody’s business. Surveys of early voters and exit polls this year showed between 76 and 81 percent of white evangelical and born-again Christian voters supported Republican President Donald J. Trump, aka Loser, and they naturally followed up by voting for down-ballot GOP candidates like McConnell. When you’re talking about a state where almost half of the population characterizes themselves as Evangelical, and about 80 percent are Trumpists, that ends up being a whole lot of votes for Republicans.

On the other side of the coin, in favor of Democrats, is the African-American vote. According to the Associated Press, about 90 percent of Black voters went for President-elect Joe Biden (heaves a sigh of relief) while eight percent went for Trump. It figures that those African-Americans voting for Biden would also vote for Democrats down-ticket.

The problem, of course, is that the Black population in Kentucky, according to the latest Census Bureau estimate, was only 9.2 percent. And they don’t vote as religiously (yes, it’s intentional) as Evangelicals.

Then there are regional issues. Eastern Kentucky used to be a Democratic bulwark, thanks to the influence of the United Mine Workers, the New Deal, and folks like Rep. Carl Perkins, D-Hindman.

During a coal strike many years ago I was in Stone in Pike County and happened upon a huge old man, wearing a construction helmet, with hands as big as bear paws. I asked his assessment of the situation and he placed one of those catcher’s mitt-sized hands on my shoulder.

“Honey,” he said (I’m 6-2 and probably weighed 275 at the time and he called me Honey), “I believe in three things. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s above all, I believe in the Democrat Party, and I believe in the United Mine Workers of America.”

Best interview I ever had.

You can’t find folks like that anymore. Mountain denizens blame former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, for the decline of the coal industry and the loss of jobs, even though the culture was on the glide path to oblivion long before his arrival. Politicians like Trump and McConnell, seizing an opportunity and lying through their teeth, promised the people there not to worry, trust us, coal will rise like a phoenix if you give us your vote.

Eastern Kentucky bit. And the residents there find themselves like Evangeline sitting beneath the oak tree. They’re still waiting. But Republicans now have their votes.

So efforts to portray McConnell as the bright, shining object beloved by women, children and manly men fall well short of the mark. Consider: If he is so cherished, why does he consistently refuse to meet with his adoring public? When was the last time Mitch held a Townhall meeting? When did he last make a public appearance that wasn’t staged in some manner, safely choreographed to assure that a member of the public who views him as the true American Idol doesn’t step forward to pose a question he doesn’t want to answer?

It’s hard to believe that a man like McConnell, the human equivalent of dirty dishwater left overnight in the sink, maintains the sort of attraction described by Jennings. Republicans have to work hard to lose a Kentucky election these days, although that blithering idiot Matt Bevin showed it can be done. Candidates like that are the Democratic Party’s only hope.


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