Politics & Government

Home delivery: What Mitch McConnell's powerful GOP perch has meant to Kentucky

Mitch McConnell has an easy-to-read list of triumphs.

He played a top role making the state Republican party a powerhouse. He returned Kentucky to the forefront as a hemp producer, and helped poor students at a state community college.

Yet Kentucky continues to lag behind the national average in health care and median income. Its teachers spent much of the spring decrying low education funding and changes to their pensions. Poverty remains a persistent challenge in Kentucky, with the rates in some Eastern Kentucky counties among the highest in the country.

Tuesday, McConnell surpasses Kansas' Bob Dole as the longest serving Republican leader in Senate history, and the Kentucky Republican remains among a handful of Washington's most powerful figures.

McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader in a recent interview that there's zero doubt the state is better off with him at the helm.

"You're talking about persistent problems that we've had for decades," McConnell said of the state's troubles. "A fair question to ask would be 'Would we better off without having the Republican leader of the Senate?' and the answer is clearly, 'No.' "

"All 100 senators may have one vote," McConnell explained, "but they’re not all equal. Kentucky benefits from having one of its own setting the agenda for the country."

Setting that agenda for Kentucky is getting tougher.

McConnell has been unable to convince President Donald Trump not to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico and is refusing to endorse a Republican-led initiative to curb Trump’s efforts.

The targeted allies and trading partners are threatening retaliation of U.S. products.

Auto manufacturers, including Toyota, which has a plant in Kentucky, are nervous.

The Distilled Spirits Council, which represents Kentucky’s burgeoning bourbon industry, last week wrote a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warning that retaliatory tariffs "would severely harm producers, U.S. farmers" and other distributors.

McConnell says he shares the concerns about a potential trade war and is hoping to influence Trump.

"The president is not going to sign a bill that tells him he can't do what he's doing," McConnell said of legislation to curtail Trump's trade authority. "I don't think we ought to engage in a futile gesture here, I think we ought to try to convince the president to go in a different direction and that’s what I've been trying to do."

McConnell’s chief legacy in Kentucky may mirror his national image as a powerful party boss.

“I don’t know that Mitch has a major piece of legislation with his name on it, but that’s never been his interest,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat who, like McConnell, once worked for the late Marlow W. Cook, a moderate one-term Republican.

“He’s always been about solidifying power, both in Washington and in Kentucky,” Yarmuth said of McConnell. “And he’s been masterful at that.”

Yarmuth and McConnell’s fellow Republicans credit the senator with reshaping the state’s political landscape and turning the state House and Senate red after decades of Democratic power.

“There’s a reason the sign in front of the Republican Party of Kentucky headquarters says the 'Mitch McConnell Building,'” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant who once worked for the senator. “Kentucky has tracked Republican right along with the trajectory of McConnell’s career."

The sign, like McConnell, has also been a target of wrath. A vandal covered it in red spray paint in April while teachers were in downtown Frankfort to push for education funding in the final days of the 2018 General Assembly.

As McConnell has sought to boost Republican ranks on the federal level, he’s focused on state party building, said Jennings, a graduate of the non-partisan McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, which McConnell and the school founded in 1991.

McConnell ‘s efforts, he said, include recruiting and raising money for candidates, with his cash-rich political action committees contributing to nearly every Republican state house candidate.

“Younger Republican candidates don’t remember a time when every race was a struggle, when raising every dollar was a struggle,” Jennings said.

McConnell is entirely unapologetic about his partisan drive.

“I’m terribly interested in policy, but unless you win election, you don't get to make policy," he said. "Those who win make policy and those who don’t go home and do something else."

McConnell came to Washington in 1985, the only Republican in 1984 to defeat a Senate Democratic incumbent, Walter Dee Huddleston.

Never widely popular at home, McConnell has at time faced tough challenges and a few missteps: In 2010, his machine was no match for first-time candidate Rand Paul, who soundly defeated McConnell's hand-picked candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, for a Senate seat. Two years later, McConnell looked to thwart attacks from the right, hiring a Paul campaign aide to run his 2014 re-election bid.

Ever the partisan, McConnell notes some thanks for the swing to the right should go to a former Democratic president.

"Hopefully I helped them, but I also want to give some credit to Barack Obama," McConnell said. "I've tried to be helpful along the way, but the Obama years were particularly offensive to Kentucky and the move away from the Democrats sped up dramatically."

During a press conference in October 2017, President Donald Trump spoke highly of his relationship with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

McConnell, though, has not always had the easiest go with a Republican president. He did deliver Trump a Supreme Court opening to by refusing to consider Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The move infuriated Democrats, but McConnell has pointed to it as one of his greatest accomplishments.

But McConnell has come under fire for refusing even Republican efforts to put a check on Trump, including legislation that would prevent Trump from firing the special counsel.

“The history books aren’t going to look kindly on Leader McConnell during the Trump administration,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “He’s done nothing to stand up to this president even as Trump goes about undermining our national security and intelligence agencies.

Some of McConnell’s policy initiatives bear the hallmarks of his political instincts.

McConnell took notice in 2011 when then state representative James Comer was elected state agriculture commissioner after campaigning on legalizing hemp as an agricultural commodity.

McConnell, who has long served on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee and several times won the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s “Golden Plow” award, took up the cause and secured a provision enabling research on the crop in the 2014 farm bill.

Despite hemp’s popularity among health food consumers and others, there is still mistrust among some law enforcement agencies and some lawmakers. But McConnell’s embrace – and ability to tuck the measure into the farm bill provides a powerful boost.

“Without him we would not have the program we have today,” said Ryan Quarles, a one-time agriculture intern for McConnell’s Senate office who now serves as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner.

Hemp’s reintroduction is helping farmers who once grew tobacco. And some of those farmers note they kept their farms because of a $10 billion tobacco buyout that McConnell engineered in 2004.

“I’m not big into politicians and I don’t get into Republican or Democrat,” said Brian Furnish, one of the first farmers licensed to grow hemp in the state on land that once produced tobacco. “But Mitch McConnell is pretty good at what he does, I can tell you that.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark