Mitch McConnell emerged from election night a big winner.
For weeks, it appeared that McConnell would lose his Senate Republican majority after winning it just two years ago, but instead he narrowly kept it, with only two seats likely going to the Democrats.
On top of that, the Kentucky state House of Representatives, the last remaining legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats, went Republican in a big way. It was an outcome that McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, had long desired.
“That only added a little more happiness to my evening,” a cheerful McConnell said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Washington.
Kentucky’s senior senator, far from diminished after Tuesday’s election, emerges from it perhaps even more powerful than before. Republicans now control the state Capitol and governorship in Kentucky, as well as the entire Congress and White House in Washington.
Kentucky’s senior senator, far from diminished after Tuesday’s election, emerges from it perhaps even more powerful than before
It was as good of an outcome as any Republican could hope for, and McConnell had a quiet but significant role in making it a reality.
“The fact that we kept ourselves in the game is a good credit to McConnell’s leadership,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky.
For McConnell, 74, this year’s election represents the latest turning point for a veteran lawmaker first elected to the Senate in 1984 – the peak of the Reagan era. Those who know McConnell say he’s always been adaptable to changes in his party, and they have no reason to believe that this time will be any different.
The fact that we kept ourselves in the game is a good credit to McConnell’s leadership.
Scott Jennings, Republican political consultant
Former Rep. Geoff Davis, a Republican who represented Northern Kentucky in Congress from 2005 to 2012, said McConnell was on course to be the most impactful Kentuckian on Capitol Hill since the legendary Henry Clay.
“All of the previous decades of Sen. McConnell’s service will bear full fruit,” Davis said. “He’s very well prepared to lead in this time, and he’ll do an outstanding job.”
All of the previous decades of Sen. McConnell’s service will bear full fruit. He’s very well prepared to lead in this time, and he’ll do an outstanding job.
Former Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky.
McConnell had a challenging map this year, with Republicans defending 24 seats, made even more unpredictable by presidential nominee Donald Trump.
If he’d lost the majority, McConnell stood a good chance of gaining it back in two years, with Democrats defending 25 seats. But after Tuesday’s results, Republicans are poised for even more gains in two years – perhaps even a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.
“The playing field is so favorable in 2018,” Jennings said, “it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.”
After Tuesday’s results, Republicans are poised for even more gains in two years — perhaps even a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes
Instead of licking his wounds and contemplating another two years in the minority, McConnell gets to set the agenda in the Senate. He can schedule votes, decide committee assignments and chairmanships.
McConnell also has other reasons to celebrate. His controversial decision in February to not let the Senate take up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court appears to have paid off.
McConnell’s decision to not let the Senate take up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court appears to have paid off
Now Trump will get to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, he’ll fill it with a conservative and a Republican Senate will get to confirm the nominee.
“He comes out looking like he picked all the right stocks before a big shift in the economy,” said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
It still takes 60 votes, however, to move forward in the Senate with a Supreme Court nomination, and McConnell won’t have anywhere close to that number.
It still takes 60 votes, however, to move forward in the Senate with a Supreme Court nomination, and McConnell won’t have anywhere close to that number
Voss doesn’t think McConnell would change that, tempting though it may be for many Republicans wanting to ensure a conservative appointment to the Supreme Court.
Voss said McConnell wouldn’t follow the lead of his predecessor, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, and change the rules to permit judicial nominations with a simple majority, a move that allowed Democrats some breathing room but may have cost them in the long run.
“This guy has been a member of that club for a long time,” Voss said of McConnell. “He believes in the Senate and its traditions.”
This guy has been a member of that club for a long time. He believes in the Senate and its traditions.
Stephen Voss, University of Kentucky
The Supreme Court also figures into one of McConnell’s signature issues: the impact of Obama’s energy and environmental policies on Kentucky’s struggling coal industry.
Kentucky and more than two dozen other states have sued the Environmental Protection Agency to stop Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would curb carbon dioxide emissions by eliminating coal-fired power plants or preventing new ones from getting built.
Since the case is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court, McConnell needs a fifth vote to achieve the outcome he favors.
McConnell can also count on Trump to undo the various Obama executive actions that both Republicans say have hurt coal
He can also count on Trump to undo the various Obama executive actions that both Republicans say have hurt coal.
But there is a risk that comes with one-party control of government, and McConnell knows that. Obama took office in 2009 with healthy majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Republicans took over the House in the 2010 midterm election.
And indeed in Kentucky, one-party rule of state government risks the kind of overreach that has produced some backlash this week in states such as Kansas and North Carolina.
I don’t think we should act as if we’ll be in the majority forever. We’ve been given a temporary lease on power. We should use it responsibly.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Amid Tuesday’s Republican victories, voters in both states took out their frustration on the policies of Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas, who’s lost a number of his key allies in the state Legislature, and Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina, who may have lost his bid for re-election.
Although it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who face the more difficult Senate electoral map in 2018, McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I don’t think we should act as if we’ll be in the majority forever,” he said. “We’ve been given a temporary lease on power. We should use it responsibly.”