In 1984, Alabama native Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. defeated U.S. Senator Walter “Dee” Huddleston, D-Ky., after a TV ad campaign — “Where’s Dee?” — featuring bloodhounds in search of the purportedly absent incumbent.
The classic spots helped define him as a master strategist and began a 29-year reign that finds the Republican minority leader in a dead heat with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, his presumptive November opponent.
Analysts agree that Grimes’ electability depends partly on Obama’s popularity here. McConnell likes to remind reporters such as HuffPo’s Howard Fineman that Kentuckians have elected him to the Senate five times. But he conveniently ignores the crucial fact that bluegrass state voters revile him even more than they disapprove of Obama.
It’s safe to rip Mitch amid this climate of contempt. During a fundraiser for Grimes last week, Congressman John Yarmuth said McConnell is less popular than former Duke Blue Devil Christian Laettner among Kentuckians. “And they’ve both been in the state the same amount,” he added.
The fundraiser, featuring former President Bill Clinton, drew about 1,200 guests and $700,000. Coverage made the front pages of 117 newspapers, according to the Grimes campaign. “And they say their phones have been ringing from California to Maine from people interested in this race,” said Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader on KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” Journalist Ronnie Ellis added, “Democrats are as energized as I’ve ever seen.”
So is Hollywood. Prior to a fundraiser there, Jeffrey Katzenburg, chief of DreamWorks Animation, sent a letter to fellow Democrats. He called the race “a pivotal election that can get the Senate working again … McConnell has used the filibuster 420 times to block legislation and appointments that were supported by a clear majority of senators. We are talking about outright obstruction of the Democratic process. (Grimes) will win if she gets the support she needs.”
Pundits concur. McConnell “is incredibly vulnerable,” said Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently on PBS’s “Washington Week.” “He represents somebody who has been there for too long, right? He becomes part of the establishment. That’s the issue in this race.”
Thus far, the campaign rhetoric has been less than lofty. A GOP official insensitive to the party’s serial sexism called Grimes “an empty dress.” Grimes called McConnell “a twice-heated biscuit.”
McConnell, who can smell fear as readily as he foments it, surely is sniffing his armpits. The best evidence that he’s running scared is his thin skin — even thinner when he sends diatribes accusing The C-J of political persecution. His campaign against Grimes won’t begin in earnest until he disposes of Republican primary challenger Matt Bevin. Even McConnell’s strongest case for re-election seems anemic. His title implies that he’s the second most powerful U.S. senator. But in this post-earmark Age of Austerity, his capacity to bring home the bacon is severely curtailed. Having failed in his top priority — to topple Obama — he’s fixated on another formidable, if not futile, pursuit: the evisceration of the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, his operatives wage a puerile campaign of tiny ideas reminiscent of Mitt and infused with signature Mitch demagoguery. They feign outrage that Grimes would accept donations from alleged lechers. Team Mitch would love nothing more than to make this election a referendum on Woody Allen, former State Rep. John Arnold, Obama and Obamacare.
The blistering issue is that Mitch is an irreversibly damaged brand. All the free speech money can buy won’t redefine him.
Despite all of McConnell’s clout, Kentucky still ranks low among the 50 states on multiple fronts. Last Saturday, HuffPo listed “5 Things Kentucky Could Spend $73 Million on Instead of a Fake Noah’s Ark.” They are (1) feed hungry children, (2) donate to cancer research, prevention or patient support, (3) invest in broken schools, (4) save abused animals and (5) combat the crippling heroin problem.
It’s time to turn McConnell’s bloodhounds against him. Where was Mitch when Kentucky was getting sicker? When the middle class was shrinking? When the minimum wage needed to be indexed to inflation? When greedy investment banks risked the world economy? When deregulation allowed the gluttonous to run amok?
Was he in bed with lobbyists, obsessed with blocking all progress, or both?