Is Mitch McConnell losing his golden GOP touch?

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — While Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has had a lousy couple of months, there's little evidence that his clout has ebbed in either his home state or in Washington. However, months remain until midterm elections that could tip the balance of power in Congress.

McConnell's political influence took an embarrassing hit Tuesday in Kentucky's GOP Senate primary, in which his handpicked candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, was trounced by grass-roots activist Rand Paul.

In Washington, the financial regulatory overhaul that McConnell branded on Wednesday as "expanding government at any cost" appears to be headed for bipartisan passage.

In March, he lost his yearlong effort to derail sweeping health care legislation.

Still, "his problem is more Kentucky than Washington," said Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University.

McConnell's reputation as a Kentucky kingmaker may have dimmed, but only slightly, state political insiders said.

While polls show that roughly half of Kentucky voters frown on the job he's done, McConnell has a 68 percent approval rating among likely GOP voters, according to a statewide poll earlier this month by Research 2000.

To be sure, he's been wounded politically. His strained relationship with Republican Sen. Jim Bunning and public refusal to support Bunning's re-election bid contributed to Bunning's decision to retire as Kentucky's junior senator. McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, helped recruit Grayson for the race, made a television ad for him and helped raise campaign money.

Still, Grayson's defeat only stung McConnell; it wasn't a mortal wound.

"The race had little to do with Mitch McConnell and more to do with Rand Paul's focus on one issue that hit home, and that's spending and America's debt. Grayson wasn't as focused as he was. He was out talking about national security and other things, and never got a hold of the key issue," said Scott Jennings, a strategist at a Louisville public relations firm and a former Bush administration official.

In Washington, McConnell operates in a very different environment, a cloistered, tradition-bound Senate in which carefully nurtured relationships matter and it's nearly impossible to topple a party leader.

Still, the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic groups pounced on Grayson's loss and the much-noted tension between McConnell and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who endorsed Paul, as an opportunity to blast the Republican Senate leader, calling the result "a stunning loss" and "a show of weakness" for him.

Such comments fit Democratic operatives' aim of undermining someone they want to topple, since he's "the most effective messenger of the anti-Obama agenda," Jennings said.

However, no incumbent Republican senator will speak ill of McConnell publicly, and rarely will they say unkind words even anonymously.

McConnell already has declared that he's locked up enough votes to remain Senate Republican leader in the 112th Congress, which convenes in January.

He gets credit for holding the 41 Republicans together on a wide variety of issues, notably health care. While the GOP lost on that, there were no defections in March's final vote, giving the party a unified message to carry into November about how the plan is too expensive and too intrusive.

Lately, though, McConnell hasn't been so successful. He tried to launch an offensive against the bank-regulation legislation last month, saying that the White House was "not interested in talking" about compromise — a day before a bipartisan White House meeting on the legislation.

At the same time, two key Republican senators involved in banking issues, Alabama's Richard Shelby and Tennessee's Bob Corker, were working on it with Democrats to find common ground.

McConnell nevertheless kept protesting. In a scathing floor speech Wednesday, he railed against the bill. "How do you explain to the average American that a bill that was meant to rein in Wall Street can be supported by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup but opposed by car dealers, dentists, florists, furniture salesman, plumbers, credit unions and community banks?" he asked.

Democrats maintain that the legislation won't affect those interests unless they extend credit, but McConnell wouldn't be mollified.

A final vote on the bank-overhaul bill is expected soon, and approval by a bipartisan majority is anticipated. The whispers will start again: Has McConnell lost his touch?

No, said Tripp Baird, a conservative analyst and formerly a top aide to former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

"Unless the Republicans lose seats in November," Baird said, "I don't see how anyone makes a case."

That's not anticipated; quite the opposite, in fact.

ON THE WEB

McConnell website

Rand Paul website

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