UPDATE: Mitch McConnell won reelection Tuesday night and will become Senate majority leader after the Republicans clinched control of the Senate.
For Mitch McConnell to shout gleefully requires some effort. His jaw appears if not wired, at least rusted closed, which forbids him from so much as cracking a slight smile without it looking as if his thin lips have been superglued together by one of his manifold enemies in the night. So early Monday morning, when the Senate Minority Leader bounded onto the stage at the Bowman Field Hangar in Louisville, Kentucky, and labored to open his narrow mouth, revealing the edges of his jagged teeth, it was clear that he had something important he needed to share with the audience.
“VICTORY IS IN THE AIR!” he bellowed, his face remaining typically placid except for his eyes, which smiled where his mouth had failed.
Victory was in the air and soon McConnell would be, too.
Literally, because he was embarking on an all-day “COUNTDOWN TO VICTORY FLY-AROUND”—from Louisville to northern Kentucky, to Lexington, to Hazard, to Paducah, to Owensboro, ending finally in the late afternoon in Bowling Green. And figuratively, because despite spending the summer locked in a heated battle with his Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and engaging in the sort of dirty campaign tactics that had forced her to sue him, it was clear on this chilly pre-Election Day morning that McConnell would be cruising into his sixth reelection to the United States Senate, and if the predictions were correct and the exclusive chamber turned bright red, he would become its majority leader.
“MITCH, MITCH, MITCH, MITCH, MITCH,” the crowd of roughly 200 roared as McConnell, wearing a “TEAM MITCH”-emblazoned windbreaker over his red shirt, beamed (as much as his face allows) before declaring, “We’re gonna bring it home tomorrow night!” McConnell stood next to his wife, Elaine Chao, secretary of labor under George W. Bush, who sported a bouffant hairstyle and a camel-colored suede blazer.
McConnell was excited. “After six years of borrowing and spending and taxing and regulations, these people need to be stopped, and it starts tomorrow night!”
After a brief speech in which he lamented over the fact that foreign reporters (from Norway, Denmark, and—groan from the audience—Al Jazeera) had descended on Kentucky to see for themselves whether America is really in decline (spoiler: it is!), McConnell piled into a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air with his wife, his former chief of staff Josh Holmes, and junior Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who McConnell told the crowd is “beginning to redefine what a Republican Party should be and who it should attract.”
For a while there, it seemed like the senior senator needed some of Paul’s mojo.
McConnell’s race has been described as a “nail-biter,” because Grimes—a young, accomplished, attractive Democrat—has received tremendous financial support from the left establishment or, as McConnell put it Monday, from “every crazy liberal in America.”
Several polls over the last few months—including in early October—have showed Grimes with a slight lead over McConnell. But Grimes has stumbled, perhaps most memorably when she repeatedly refused to say whether she had voted for President Obama, which opened her up to criticisms of dishonesty from McConnell: “My opponent has spent most of her time trying to deceive everybody about her own views.”
As the crown jewel of the old-guard Republican establishment, it has been vital for McConnell to put on a united front with Paul, who is seen as the shepherd of the new GOP brand of flexible, pragmatic inclusiveness. Paul, dressed in light-wash jeans, a green jacket, royal blue vest, and cowboy boots (it was a look) helpfully needled Grimes for McConnell, mocking her unwillingness to say whom she voted for and dismissing Hillary Clinton’s show of support, offering that the Clintons could never influence Kentucky voters. “We’re gonna send them a message tomorrow,” he smiled. The crowd laughed and hooted knowingly. Polls show McConnell leading by roughly 7 percentage points.
Help aside, McConnell has hit his fair share of bumps.
A mailer labeled “ELECTION VIOLATION NOTICE” was sent to voters, claiming that they were “at risk of acting on fraudulent information” because Grimes has been spreading “blatant lies solely to deceive Kentucky voters.” The mailer read that it was paid for by the Kentucky GOP and authorized by McConnell’s Senate committee. Grimes and company hit back, filing a lawsuit that derided the tactic as “false and misleading in that it implies to the voter that he/she has violated Kentucky election laws.” (On Monday, a state judge rejected Grimes’ court motion to stop the McConnell campaign from distributing the mailer.)
After filing out of the twin-engine in Lexington, McConnell told the crowd that the tough race was fine by him: “I don’t own this seat,” he said. “I’m not offended by having a big race.” The sense of relief in his voice, however, was tough to ignore. “VICTORY IS IN THE AIR!” he shouted again. “We’re gonna bring it home tomorrow night!”
McConnell’s sights have long been set on becoming majority leader. Alec Macgillis, author of the McConnell biography The Cynic, told Bloomberg’s David Weigel, “He’s like Harry Reid in this regard: All he’s ever dreamed of is climbing in the Senate, unlike the other 98 senators who think they might someday become president.”
That contrast could not have been clearer on Monday. McConnell, with faux self-deprecation, repeatedly mentioned Paul as being named by Time magazine (and Politico, and The Washington Post, and probably several other publications since you began reading this article) as “the most interesting man in politics.” The Time piece, McConnell seemed to take pleasure in needling Paul by noting, featured a handsome cover photo of the likely presidential candidate. It is the type of celebrity that McConnell seems to have no desire or use for. Where others want fame, he wants power.
For the last time on Monday, McConnell tumbled out of the King Air and into a room full of adoring supporters at the Warren County Regional Airport in Bowling Green, a look of satisfaction on his face as he turned up to face the fluorescent lights.
After a long day in the air, punctuated by stops in which he told different groups of voters the same few lines over and over and over again, McConnell was curiously energetic. Perhaps he had been feeding off the relative youth of Paul, who appeared in need of a long nap by this point. McConnell certainly didn’t notice that, however. He had a final pitch to make.
“Look, every senator has one vote, but every senator is not equal in influence over the process,” he informed the crowd. “There’s one job in the Senate that gives you a unique opportunity, and that’s being the majority leader of the Senate.”
“We’re a basketball state, but I like to use an analogy that some of you have heard me use before: a football analogy. On the staff of every football team, you have an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator. I am, as the leader of the minority, the defensive coordinator. As you know, it’s harder to score on defense. The offensive coordinator gets to call all the plays, has a better chance of putting points on the board, and setting the agenda for the country. What we need is a new majority leader in the Senate to set the agenda and take America in a different direction.”
On Tuesday night, he may just get that chance. But not before, for the millionth time, he struggled to unlock his jaw and shouted, “VICTORY IS IN THE AIR AND IT STARTS TOMORROW NIGHT!”