A sea of voters flooded the lobby of an East Louisville, Kentucky Marriott on Tuesday evening to celebrate a new era of Republican leadership in America. It will be overseen by Mitch McConnell, the soon-to-be majority leader of the United States Senate, who was reelected in a landslide. High above the carpet-bound crowd danced a sign, raised by the big arms of a strapping young McConnell staffer named Hunter, which read “COME AT ME BRO.” As Hunter waved it in the air, light flashed off his Colgate-commercial-ready grin.
McConnell had seen the sign, Hunter told me, and “he loves it!” McConnell's wife, former Department of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, had recently blessed it with her loopy signature, and Hunter was hoping McConnell would soon do the same so he could take it home from the office and perhaps mount it on his wall.
Come at me bro!
If the looks of McConnell’s victory party were any indication, bros are in fact his core constituency.
A young bro in salmon-colored pants and a corresponding bow tie snaked through the crowd, wearing a “TEAM MITCH” sticker on his navy blazer. He clumsily sipped from the dainty straw of a blasphemously non-bourbon beverage and smiled broadly as he talked to fellow bros.
An older bro wore a red bow tie and a yarmulke emblazoned with the “TEAM MITCH” logo as he stared down at his smartphone intently.
An ageless bro with frosted blond hair wandered the carpeted ballroom flanked on each side by glamorous, big-haired Kentucky women.
And while, yes, McConnell had spent the majority of the summer locked in a heated battle with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes—who had stormed into the race with the full weight of the liberal establishment behind her and even pulled ahead of McConnell in a few polls—his message was less come at me, bro than it was a riddle intended to convince the public that despite his several decades in office, he has barely had a chance to move the needle for the conservative cause, so just give him a chance.
Ahead of the election, he told a crowd in Bowling Green, “Look, every senator has one vote, but every senator is not equal in influence over the process. There’s one job in the Senate that gives you a unique opportunity, and that’s being the majority leader of the Senate.”
On the ground, Kentuckians seemed more worried about Grimes’ relative inexperience than her policies. McConnell, voters are well aware, has wanted to be majority leader of the Senate since he first interned in the chamber in the early 1960s as a less-jowly, apple-cheeked youth. For residents of a state that often feels left out of the national dialogue, having one of their own in a position of power in the Senate is almost as good as getting one elected president.
“I don’t think he wants power as an end in itself,” Darrell Traughber, the Warren County District 6 Magistrate, told me between deep drags on a Marlboro Light in Bowling Green. “He does understand the Senate. He says he’s going to let votes come to the floor.”
Never mind that McConnell has been in office since 1985, and his critics on both the left and the right charge that if there is gridlock, he is at least partially responsible.
Of course, that has no place in a victory lap.
It seemed at first as though no one inside McConnell’s victory party had been made aware that he achieved victory Tuesday evening. They chatted amongst themselves and walked aimlessly, eating handfuls of popcorn, their hearts presumably in their chests as they worried for the fate of the commonwealth. When his success was finally projected for the crowd—a 58 to 40 win—the crowd roared, popcorn spilling onto the floor.
Junior Kentucky Senator and probable presidential candidate Rand Paul took to the stage, his voice hoarse after over 24 hours of giving speeches in honor of his colleague.
“In reelecting Mitch McConnell, Kentucky sends a message that the country wants new leadership and an end to gridlock,” he said, before asking that Congress “work together” to pass legislation.
McConnell soon followed, beaming like an ornament atop a Christmas tree.
To the surprise of anyone who has ever heard McConnell speak, warm sincerity could be detected as he spoke kindly about his opponent. Grimes, he said, had “earned my respect” with her campaign, something which McConnell entreated the audience to give her credit for.
“Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” McConnell offered.
But then, come at me, bro!
“Kentucky is tired of a government that only seems to work when it’s working against them.... Tomorrow, the papers will say I won this race, but the truth is, tonight we begin another race: that’s the race to turn this country around.”