Midterms

Mitch McConnell is an easy target. But Dems aren’t using him as a villain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received applause Monday as President Donald Trump spoke before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received applause Monday as President Donald Trump spoke before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in the White House. The New York Times

Mitch McConnell would seem to be such an easy target.

He’s at the center of every political controversy these days, including Brett Kavanaugh’s bitterly contested confirmation. This week he gave Democrats a fresh opening for an attack when he blamed soaring deficits not on the Republican tax cuts, but on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Yet Democrats haven’t eagerly sought to use the Senate Majority Leader as a villain.

They seem to have little appetite for demonizing McConnell the way Republicans have turned House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi into a GOP punching bag.

Pelosi is vilified in dozens of Republican campaign ads across the country, cast as a major threat to conservative ideals. But Democrats have not sought to do the same, even as they view McConnell a threat to all they hold dear.

They lambast him at press conferences and send out dire emails. “Make Mitch McConnell minority leader,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a pitch for contributions this week.

And that’s about it.

“No operative on any side is going to put something in an ad they haven’t focused on and polled on and it’s clear that McConnell doesn’t carry that same anger that Pelosi does,” said Andrea Bozek, a political strategist and former spokeswoman for both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“You know it works when it’s on TV and there’s money behind it. But McConnell’s not there,” she said.

Bozek credits McConnell for not giving Democrats sufficient ammunition by mostly keeping a low-key, behind the scenes profile. He’s also a master of sharing credit. At his weekly press availability, he always surrounds himself with other GOP leaders and his committee chairmen, and lets them speak freely. McConnell rarely holds solo news conferences.

“Because he’s been that type of leader and doesn’t have an ego, it makes it harder for Democrats to make him the poster child for the Republican party,” said Bozek.

Democrats say McConnell hasn’t been a focus because Republican policies are even more unpopular than he is.

“McConnell is certainly unpopular in a number of states, but the only thing that is less popular than him are his policies, so why spend time attaching McConnell to these people when we have the policies that are even more unpopular?” asked Ben Ray, a senior adviser with the DSCC. “We are much more policy focused and I think that’s a reflection of voters we want to communicate with.”

Although McConnell isn’t in ads, Ray said, the senator is frequently a focus for candidates who are quick to issue statements and secure newspaper stories. Those candidates pounced after McConnell’s remarks on Tuesday when he raised the issue of cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security when asked about rising deficits and debt.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said evidence suggests that anti-Pelosi messaging doesn’t work: Conor Lamb in March won a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat, even after Republicans spent $10 million on attack ads, calling him a member of Nancy Pelosi’s liberal “flock.”

McConnell, he said, is “reviled” among Democrats for refusing to hold a vote or even a hearing for former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick eight months before the 2016 election. Protesters have appeared outside the senator’s Capitol Hill house and hectored him at the airport and leaving an event with his wife.

“He’s already one of the worst words you can say to a Democrat, but those attacks don’t move people,” Hammill said. “People care more about the issues, about health care.”

McConnell has been unpopular among some Republicans for presumably not delivering on President Donald Trump’s agenda. But, after steering the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination through a bitterly divided Senate, McConnell is enjoying some of his highest popularity ratings among Republicans.

Earlier this year, McConnell was the target of a failed West Virginia Republican Senate candidate who savaged McConnell as the “swamp captain” and ran an ad saying that one of his goals as a senator would be to oust McConnell.

Republican criticism of Pelosi has been sustained at least since she became House Minority Leader in 2003. Bozek said she’d been “writing press releases about Nancy Pelosi since 2005.” Much of it has been focused on depicting Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal” — a poisonous phrase for conservatives — but it’s not possible for Democrats to lob a geographical-based insult at the Kentucky Republican.

Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that Pelosi attacks continue beyond campaign season: “Tune in Sean Hannity in February and he’s going after Nancy Pelosi, even if there’s not an election.”

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, agreed with some Democrats who contend that some of the Pelosi critiques are fueled by sexism. But he said there’s also a difference between the two parties’ approaches.

“Gender may not get at the fact that Republicans have the discipline that they can latch onto something and create an image and drive it,” Miringoff said. McConnell benefits from a more unified caucus, unlike the Democratic caucus, where there is friction between the old guard of long-time leaders and a new generation.

Democrats have directed a variety of attacks on McConnell, while Republican criticism of Pelosi has been more focused, said pollster Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

“It’s been a lot of jabbing at McConnell, but no real solid blows getting landed,” Miringoff said. “For Pelosi, there is a focus to their criticism and Republicans don’t shy away from being repetitive with talking points. There is criticism of McConnell, but the dots don’t come together to form a picture.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark
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