It’s not easy to overestimate Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s most fearsome politician, but I did.
Nearly a year ago, I lambasted Kentucky Democratic operatives who elbowed out actress Ashley Judd in her unconsummated challenge of Senator Mitch McConnell, in favor of the young, lightly tested Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
My rationale was I never thought Grimes would run. I’d been in her shoes in 2002, when as a thirty-something, recently elected state treasurer, I didn’t hesitate to reject suggestions that I risk my nascent political career by taking on the most brutally effective political tactician in modern Kentucky political history. McConnell didn’t just win electoral contests; McConnell destroyed his opponents: Of his last five Senate challengers, four never ran for office again, and the fifth — incumbent Governor Steve Beshear — spent more than a decade on the political sidelines healing from Mitch’s artillery.
But to her great credit, Grimes flung her Derby hat into the ring, showing — to use an old Kentucky expression — incredible chutzpah. Her moxie has revealed itself as a brilliant political decision: Every recent poll shows the two candidates in a virtual tie, or even Grimes slightly ahead. Kentucky has emerged as national Democrats’ best hope for stealing the red state they need to retain control of the Senate.
The obvious culprit for Grimes’s early success has been McConnell’s stunning unpopularity in the state. The most recent independent poll showed the senior senator with a rock-bottom 32 percent approval rating, lower than even—gasp—Barack Obama, whose name is featured and skewered at least a half dozen times in every McConnell press release. But for months, there’s been a looming sense among political insiders that at some point…soon…the McConnell campaign would accelerate into beast mode — as it always has in the past — and start successfully transforming the election into a referendum on the Obama/Grimes love affair.
And yet, not only has the McConnell machine failed to shift into higher gear, it has sputtered worse than a beat-up jalopy. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a recent campaign (not led by Todd Akin or Christine McDonnell) that has had a worse couple of weeks than McConnell had in March.
The month began with the campaign’s release of a bizarre, soundless video, featuring the Senator in awkward settings, flashing his tight, grim grin. A hilarious “McConnelling” meme ensued on the Web — the b-roll was spliced with subversive subtitles and ironically juxtaposed videos — and was popularized most prominently by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. A week later, McConnell’s campaign stepped on its own press conference by dispatching a police officer to block a liberal alt-weekly reporter from attending and asking tough questions of the self-avowed First Amendment champion.
But neither of those mistakes reached the level of outrageous incompetence than Tuesday’s release of a video by the campaign that attempted to exploit March Madness fever on the senator’s behalf. In a state where college basketball is our only organized religion, where this upcoming Friday’s NCAA tournament matchup between intra-state arch-rivals Kentucky and Louisville is occupying the entire bandwidth of the state’s attention span, the McConnell campaign ran an ad featuring the championship celebration of…Duke.
Now for those not familiar with college hoops rivalries, ever since the 1992 NCAA tournament, when Christian Laettner sunk a last-second shot to defeat our beloved Kentucky Wildcats, Duke basketball has taken the rightful place as the bete-noire, the Darth Vader, the source of all that is evil for most Kentuckians. A Kentucky political commercial featuring a Duke celebration would be equivalent to an Israeli campaign ad celebrating a Hamas rally, or a Ford ad showing an exploding Pinto.
Then once exposed, to make matters much worse, the McConnell campaign replaced the Duke footage with a clip of current UK star freshman Julius Randle, in violation of NCAA rules prohibiting the likenesses of college student-athletes from being used in political commercials. To add salt to the wound, the university felt compelled to send the McConnell campaign a cease-and-desist letter insisting that the video be forever scrubbed from the digital annals.
Mitch McConnell has thereby found himself in an unprecedented situation — the master politician is running an embarrassment of a campaign. And there is little that is tougher to survive politically than becoming a laughingstock, particularly with 24/7 cable news and social media replaying your humiliations on a virtual endless loop.
Veteran Kentucky political observers are shaking their heads at McConnell’s sudden loss of political mastery. Some blame his lack of traction on the high level of difficulty of running his traditionally scorched earth strategy against a young female opponent — early sexualized GOP attacks on Grimes as an “empty dress” and an “Obama girl” backfired and perhaps have led to a heightened defensiveness from the McConnell camp and a more desperate effort to reach outside of their comfort zone into, yikes, positive advocacy.
Others blame the campaign leadership, specifically campaign manager Jesse Benton, a Ron and Rand Paul confidante and family member. The manager’s hiring was seen as a bold strategic move by McConnell to blunt Tea Party primary opposition; but after a recording emerged of Benton claiming that he was “holding my nose” while he worked for the establishment icon — and then after McConnell’s refusal to fire or even discipline Benton for his insubordination — it appeared that the powerful Senate leader was being held captive by insurgent forces that lack the professionalism and experience to run a top-tier Senate campaign . And perhaps some of the campaign’s mistakes over the past month might be attributed to a manager whose head and heart aren’t really in the race.
But my theory involves none of the above. I believe that Mitch McConnell is having a Bulworth moment. Just like the suicidal disillusioned title character of the 1990s Warren Beatty feature, Kentucky’s senior senator has simply had enough of Washington. Why, after all, would anyone want to return to the polarization, the hyper-partisanship, the paralysis that has engulfed the nation’s capital? And with some sense of responsibility for helping create that status quo, I believe McConnell now desires to leave on his own terms — smirking on camera, sticking it to the liberal media, and poking the eye of absurd traditions such as our undeserved ardor for a bunch of teenagers running up and down a hardwood floor.