What’s the print version of Donald Trump being booed at the World Series?
The poll showing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the president’s most stolid defender, is down to a 18 percent job approval rating in Kentucky. Only 37 percent in the Public Policy Poll said they would vote for him again next year.
Could that be because of his stone-faced support for whatever steaming mess Trump hurls his way? The Bluegrass State is the canary in the mine for how much Trump can help, or hurt, a candidate as his impeachment looks every more likely. After two weeks of unimpeachable civil servants bearing witness to an impeachable president, clinging to Trump out of fear he will kill you if you don’t do what he says is becoming more politically perilous.
McConnell’s facing his toughest race since he first won election in 1984 by a few thousand votes after airing a famous ad in which a bloodhound sniffs around for the incumbent Walter Dee Huddleston who is nowhere to be found. 2020 will be McConnell’s first race since the once dignified man was infantilized by Trump and his unceasing demands for abject obedience. The indelible impression of the majority leader is of a sphinx standing before a microphone in the Capitol, flanked by a posse of yes-men quaking in their boots lest they reveal a flicker of disagreement with the White House. Even when it came to the Syrian conflict, they only objected briefly to abandoning our Kurdish allies in favor of helping Russia and letting terrorists go free. After Trump rebuked them, the caucus hastily retreated and learned to be impressed by his novel approach in the region.
As a guide to McConnell’s calculations, Tuesday’s off-year gubernatorial election is ideal. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is pure Trump, hating on immigrants, Obamacare, gay marriage, sanctuary cities, abortion facilities (which he’s closed), and taxes being spent on fripperies like Medicaid expansion and education. When teachers called in sick to protest budget cuts, Bevin accused them of exposing children to sexual predators. He assiduously courts evangelicals, inviting them last week to the governor’s mansion in Frankfort for a “spiritual” event to "awaken and motivate a sleeping church."
A good month for Bevin is one in which he places second in the race for the country’s most unpopular governor. Even Republicans don’t like him. As a Tea Party candidate, Bevin primaried McConnell in 2014 on a platform of replacing the income tax with a consumption tax, and exposing kids to chicken pox rather than vaccinating them like he did with his children. He gave McConnell multiple opportunities to point out what a kook he was and how often he struggled with the truth. Bevin’s subsequent victory in the 2015 governor’s race—without McConnell’s support—is partly due to getting out the conservative vote by linking himself to the infamous Kim Davis, the county clerk who went to jail rather than issue gay men marriage licenses.
Rumor is Bevin was angling for an administration post to save himself from the embarrassment of losing re-election—as if the White House were a shame-free zone. He didn’t get that but he is getting an election eve visit from the president who’s good at riling up the base against any Democrat, in this case Attorney General Andy Beshear. The son of former governor Steve Beshear, he’s as anxious to to localize the race as Bevin is to nationalize it. Beshear’s tackled the opioid crisis, railed against Bevin’s misuse of the state’s plane, and the poor economy. At the last debate, he gave Bevin a chance to apologize to teachers for calling them “thugs” and “ignorant,” and “saying that they caused the sexual assault of a minor simply for coming to the Capitol and standing up for public education.” Bevin refused.The last Mason-Dixon poll has the two even but in-state prognosticators now give Bevin the edge given that the race is no longer about conduct in office but which tribe you belong to.
McConnell had his own World Series moment in August at Fancy Farm, the 100-year old picnic which attracts 10,000 Kentuckians to eat barbecue and listen to pols in 90-degree heat. It’s a chance for McConnell to get down and doff his tie, kiss babies and toss a Frisbee, which he rejects. In the morning he attends a carefully curated Republican breakfast and returns later in his bullet-proof SUV to make remarks midday on the bipartisan main stage. Last year, kids in Team Mitch T-shirts groped and leered at a cutout of AOC. This year, his speech was interrupted by an organized group of hecklers in Say Nyet to Moscow Mitch T-shirts, a reminder that he refuses to bring election security legislation to the floor for fear of upsetting the president who believes Vladimir Putin on Russian interference in 2016, not American intelligence agencies. McConnell called the group “a bunch of Democrats running around with Communist flags on their shirts,” proof “they want to take the country” to a socialist hell with Medicare for All and a Green New Deal that would take away your hamburgers. Shortly after reminding the crowd that he’d “saved the Supreme Court for a generation,” he left.
As his poll numbers have dropped and his re-election bid looms, McConnell has made ever so slight moves to distance himself from Trump, whose whims now extend to the slaughter of our erstwhile allies, like the Kurds and Ukranians. Somewhere inside the old McConnell lives a patriot and institutional loyalist appalled that Trump has deputized a shadow government staffed by rogue operators like Rudy Giuliani and his now indicted pals. To those ends, McConnell recently refused to confirm Trump’s claim that McConnell said his Ukrainian call was “innocent,” or to agree that impeachment is a “lynching.” He hedges his criticism of impeachment by objecting to the process.
Even if the Tuesday’s matchup shows that Trump wasn’t able to propel every last Republican to the polls and that Democrats had succeeded in crawling over glass and defeating Bevin, McConnell may not divorce Trump. The longest serving majority leader is married to Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, a powerful combination. The consternation in Washington over an investigation revealing that she is much more likely to entertain a constituent of her husband than anyone else was a plus at home. And McConnell already put his eggs in Trump’s basket with an ad buy in which he brazenly asks for money with the promise that “the way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as Majority Leader.” So much for swearing to be an impartial juror, and good luck deep-sixing that ad in the same file where Trump aides tried to hide the transcript of the Ukrainian call.
McConnell’s become so comfortable doing the wrong thing, it may be too hard for him to switch to the right one, to risk being labeled “human scum” as Trump calls his Republican critics and to endure Trump’s red-faced rage, on the gamble it will help him. Still, if Bevin loses and Trump keeps sinking, he will have to do something. If he’s more frightened by an approval rating in the teens than Trump’s fury, it will be the right one.