GOP’s Mitch McConnell sets his sights on Senate majority leader post

Sen. Mitch McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, after voting in Kentucky's Republican primary, in which McConnell defeated tea party favorite Matt Bevin.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, is on the verge of snaring the job he’s dreamed about for years: majority leader.

Less than a year after a widely unpopular government shutdown dealt the GOP a political blow, McConnell and his fellow Republicans — who already hold the majority in the House — see total control of Congress within their grasp. With a gain of six seats, the party would hold the Senate too.

On Thursday, McConnell called on Republicans to unite and vowed to run the Senate more cooperatively than his Democratic rivals have. “If Republicans were fortunate enough to reclaim the majority in November, I assure you, my friends, all of this would change,” he told a conservative think tank audience.

But even as McConnell begins to plot the road ahead, there is a growing fear inside the party that controlling both houses would multiply, rather than mitigate, the internal challenges Republicans have faced in the tea party era. Much of the Washington gridlock in recent years has come not only from partisan bickering but from GOP infighting.


Deep divisions remain among Republicans over how to address immigration and the deficit, and those struggles could intensify with a new Senate majority that includes centrists such as Maine’s Susan Collins and small-government, libertarian-minded conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The success of a Republican Congress would rest largely on McConnell, a veteran lawmaker who worked his way up from being a Capitol intern to serving in President Ford’s Justice Department, before returning to Kentucky to start his own political career.

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said McConnell, whom he called a “creature of the Senate,” has long aspired to the leadership post.

“He views it as a historic event, and a chance to make a difference,” Lott said. “I don’t think he’s just looking for the glory of it.”


But succeeding in the role wouldn’t just test McConnell’s skills, Lott added. “It’s also going to take a different attitude among his troops.”

That might explain why McConnell, 72, and other Republicans are already working to lower expectations about what is achievable.

“When you’re in the majority, you have more responsibility,” McConnell said in a recent interview as he campaigned through Kentucky. “And it is challenging.”

Even a Republican wave this fall would probably give the GOP only a razor-thin majority, perhaps just the 51 votes they would need to end six years of Democratic control of the upper chamber. But that’s not enough in a body where any major legislative action requires a filibuster-proof 60 votes.


“We’re not going to have 60 votes,” said McConnell, who has developed a reputation as a shrewd political strategist and master of arcane Senate procedure. “It is important to remember Barack Obama will still be president for two more years, and the veto pen is a powerful thing. So we need to be realistic.”

McConnell’s task would be daunting: trying to attract the Democratic votes he would need to advance bills without incurring defections from his own camp. Hard-line conservatives are likely to insist on a renewed fight to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law as well as spending cuts to balance the budget. Social conservatives will push for new legislation to restrict abortion and benefits to same-sex couples.

As majority leader, McConnell would command significant authority in setting the agenda. But in a speech in January, he indicated that he would focus on areas of consensus, not solely conservative priorities, such as repeated votes to repeal Obamacare.

“There’s a time for making a political point, even scoring a few points — I know that as well as anybody,” he said then. “But it can’t be the only thing we do here.”


Senior lawmakers cite tax reform as an example of the type of legislation that could draw bipartisan support and be harder for Obama to veto.

But McConnell’s stated goal of restoring the Senate to its role as a “moderating institution” doesn’t sit well with tea party conservatives, who have used their position in the House to dominate the agenda, often to the frustration of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

Conservative leaders met quietly outside Washington last week to plot a strategy for reasserting their influence within the Republican Party, concerned that mainstream GOP leaders would abandon core principles and move to the center to position the party for the 2016 presidential race.

“An effort in the next two years to keep our heads down ... will probably end with disappointing election results,” warned Michael Needham, who heads the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America and attended the strategy meeting.


Needham said the party should stick to the conservative ideals that appeal to its core supporters. “If you’re not providing a contrast to the left, you shouldn’t be surprised that the American people embrace the people who are providing the agenda,” he said. “This notion that the left and the right just need to sit down and come up with compromises does disservice to vast philosophical differences in this country.”

McConnell allies emphasize that the Kentuckian isn’t planning to shy away from political battles with the president when they are required. But he’s also keenly aware that just as quickly as the party might take the Senate majority, they could lose it in 2016 when a slate of first-term Republicans would face reelection in swing and Democratic-leaning states.

A fully Republican-controlled Congress would have an obligation to the party’s would-be 2016 presidential hopefuls to avoid extreme positions that would damage the nominee, analysts say. By leading both houses, Republicans would bear full responsibility for an institution that is highly unpopular with the public and has been notoriously unproductive in recent years.

“In order to elect a president in 2016, we’re going to have to show in 2015 and ’16 that the American people can trust Republicans with the government,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “That means that we’ll have to come up with changes that go in a conservative direction, but changes that command support of independent voters as well as our conservative base.”


McConnell’s most immediate challenge is winning his own race, which could prove difficult even in a state that handed Obama one of his largest margins of defeat in 2012.

After defeating tea party favorite Matt Bevin in the GOP primary Tuesday, McConnell faces a stronger challenge in November from Kentucky’s Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes. On a 50-county bus tour in recent weeks, the 35-year-old Grimes has hammered McConnell for not focusing enough on the state’s economy. And she launched the fall campaign by painting McConnell as a key driver of Washington dysfunction, calling him “Sen. Gridlock.”

An NBC/Marist poll released this month showed the Republican with 46% to Grimes’ 45% — within the poll’s margin of error. Only 42% of registered voters said they had a favorable opinion of him.

Speaking at a senior center in the town of Booneville, McConnell predicted a bruising campaign and said he was “the only Republican running this year that every crazy liberal in the country’s heard of. ... They’ll be sending their money — they already are — to my opponent.”


But in the interview, McConnell raised the idea that more centrist Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, would be willing to cross the aisle on some issues. And he argued that a Republican Congress might draw Obama to the political center and lead to greater cooperation in Washington.

“I know it sounds kind of counterintuitive,” he said. “But I think the single biggest chance for the president to finally address some of the bigger problems that are confronting the country would come about if he had a 100% opposition Congress.”