Congress

McConnell knows he’s going to be a Democratic target in 2020. Enter the hemp issue.

FILE - In a Thursday, July 5, 2018 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, inspects a piece of hemp taken from a bale of hemp at a processing plant in Louisville, Ky. McConnell has guaranteed that his proposal to make hemp a legal agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances, will be part of the final farm bill.
FILE - In a Thursday, July 5, 2018 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, inspects a piece of hemp taken from a bale of hemp at a processing plant in Louisville, Ky. McConnell has guaranteed that his proposal to make hemp a legal agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances, will be part of the final farm bill. AP Photo

Mitch McConnell acknowledges he’ll be one of national Democrats’ top targets in 2020 when he runs for reelection. But he’ll boast an unusual tool on the campaign trail: His success at reviving hemp, a one-time Kentucky cash crop.

“There’s no question when you run for office you talk about the differences you think you made,” the Kentucky Republican told McClatchy in an interview, minutes after he offered Wednesday on the Senate floor to loan President Donald Trump his “hemp pen” to sign the legalization effort into law.

Trump was expected to sign the bill within a week, and McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, joked in the interview that he wasn’t sure if Trump would prefer to use a traditional pen.

“He’s got a big signature, if you’ve seen it,” the senator said.

McConnell, who has made legalizing hemp a priority, is certain to make it a plank of his pitch to voters in a year that Democrats are likely to be consumed by trying to oust Trump and McConnell, an important White House ally.

Never widely popular at home, McConnell has at time faced tough campaigns and launched his bid for a seventh term in the Senate over the summer, with supporters noting he believes “you can start too late, but never too early.” He has already raised nearly $5.5 million.

Though no challengers from his right or left have yet to declare, McConnell said he’s very much aware that he’s hugely unpopular with the national Democratic base.

“I’m sure I’m the one Republican every Democrat in the country will want to beat other than Donald Trump, with whom I will be on the ballot and I do share that honor with him,” McConnell said Wednesday. “I’m sure it will attract resources all over the country.”

Kentucky is likely to see a preview of McConnell’s hemp campaign in 2019 when Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles runs for re-election. Quarles was in Washington for the Senate bill passage and said it “demonstrates that hemp is no longer a novelty but a serious crop that will unleash economic opportunity for our farmers.”

The Kentucky Republican Party has already created a potential blueprint for a campaign ad: A Rushmore-like scene of McConnell, Quarles and fellow Kentucky Republican hemp advocates Rep. James Comer and Sen. Rand Paul superimposed over a field of hemp.

It plays to a historical role for Kentucky, along with limited government, said Tres Watson, a party spokesman.

“It fits into Republicans’ regulatory message of getting the government out of the way,” he said.

Though Kentucky is a red state and Democrats lost a big opportunity to flip a House seat in November, McConnell is likely to have a competitive race, said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report.

“He’s the leader and Democrats will work very hard to get the best possible candidate they can,” Duffy said, citing McConnell’s leadership position.

But, she added, “History has shown you may be the best, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to beat McConnell. He has ended many a career.”

Hemp is a popular issue for McConnell, particularly now that members of Congress no longer have local projects obtained through so-called “earmarks” to tout, Duffy said.

Kentucky farmers hit hard by the downturn in tobacco are a “constituency he’s been trying to help.” she said, and hemp “is a good issue for him.”

McConnell frequently tours hemp farms and processing facilities to tout the crop’s economic possibilities. He received the pen, a corn-based polymer filled with hemp fiber, grown in Kentucky, during a July visit to Sunstrand, a Louisville company that makes environmentally-friendly materials.

Those involved in getting hemp off the list of controlled substances say it was a very personal investment for McConnell.

He appointed himself to the committee negotiating final farm bill details to insure his push would succeed. He told lawmakers hemp could be an economic boon for farmers in rural areas, noting its potential uses.

“Hemp could end up in your car’s dashboard, it could end up in your food, it could end up in your medicine” was a consistent refrain.

To law and order skeptics, McConnell made the case that hemp was entirely distinct from marijuana, which he dubbed hemp’s “illicit cousin.” He kept a count of supportive senators in his jacket pocket for weeks, cajoling senators on the Senate floor and at lunches to support, or at least not oppose, his measure.

What helped convince skeptics: McConnell successfully tucked a provision into the 2014 farm bill that allowed for limited hemp production and offered assurances to any wavering senators that the pilot project unfolded without incident.

He noted on the Senate floor that in 2017 Kentucky hemp sales accounted for more than $16 million and said Wednesday that once legalized, sales from hemp are estimated to surpass $1 billion nationwide.

“This is good for our state and another example of the good that comes from having a majority leader from your state,” McConnell said, who noted on the Senate floor “some of this very body’s notable figures, including Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay“ were believed to have grown hemp.

At the first Kentucky Hemp Days fest in Cynthiana, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles hailed the crop’s progress and supported full legalization a day after U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell inserted hemp language in the Farm Bill.

Jonathan Miller of Lexington, a lobbyist and lawyer whose clients include hemp interests, said he’s a liberal Democrat who would not support a Republican. But he credited McConnell for pushing an issue that he said will benefit the state.

“This wasn’t about special interests, this is something he thought was the right thing to do for Kentucky and you have to applaud him for that,” Miller said. “Democrats have a stereotype of McConnell that he’s only focused on party and power, this episode proves there’s another side and he certainly did what he thought was best for struggling farmers.”

McConnell mentioned his role in securing hemp production in the 2014 farm bill during his re-election effort that year, with press accounts at the time noting that it became a central talking point in his stump speech against his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

His 2020 campaign chairman, Jonathan Shell, said McConnell’s success with hemp “reiterates to Kentucky and to voters that when you want something done in Washington, you go to McConnell and he sets his mind to it. There’s not much that he can’t get done.”

Though some conservative Republicans have opposed the legalization of marijuana and balked at hemp, Shell noted McConnell had the credibility to convince his caucus.

“He’s able to give a lot of cover and credibility,” Shell said. “He’s not known as being someone out of the mainstream, but he supported this.”

Hemp’s potency as a campaign topic was first realized in 2011 when Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, ran for Agriculture Commissioner. Comer said his platform at the time was “cows, sows and plows,” but that reporters seized on his support for hemp and gave him valuable free coverage.

“It exceeded my expectations for popularity,” said Comer, who was the only Republican to win statewide that year during an otherwise tough year for his party.

Hemp was once a leading cash crop in Kentucky — the federal government during World War II had the state’s farmers grow hemp for the war effort — and old-timers remembered the crop fondly, Comer said.

“It was mind-boggling the 65 and over support for hemp in Kentucky,” Comer said. “You expected it to be zero, but in Kentucky over half supported it. It’s one of those few issues that unite both ends of the spectrum.”

He noted that progressive voters like hemp because its biodegradable and cultivation requires little fertilizer in the right conditions. Conservatives like the hemp provision, Comer said, “because it’s the perfect example of government standing in the way of the private sector.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.

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