They don’t call him the Grim Reaper for nothing.
Killing legislation is what he does. But this time it’s different. The legislation is bipartisan, and it’s about election security. It would modernize voting machines and require back-up paper ballots, and Mitch McConnell is blocking it even though it would get 70 to 75 votes in the Senate.
His obstruction has earned him the moniker Moscow Mitch, and prompted accusations of unpatriotic and traitorous behavior. The usually unflappable McConnell took to the Senate floor on Monday to fulminate against the “hyperventilating hacks” who dared to question his motives for stopping bills that would protect the 2020 election against Russian interference.
He compared the attacks on him to “modern-day McCarthyism,” and defended his opposition to federal involvement in state and local elections as “states’ rights.”
McConnell ought to go back and re-read the Constitution, says Brookings government scholar Bill Galston. “Authority over federal elections is clearly divided between Congress and the states in Article 1, Section 4. The Constitution couldn’t be clearer.”
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) that Congress passed in reaction to the 2000 election, which was deadlocked for 36 days because of voting machine irregularities, remains the law of the land almost 20 years later with no constitutional challenges. This is not a high-minded states’ rights issue as McConnell would like voters to believe.
“This is a case where the personal is the political,” says Galston. “This is an effort to protect the president.”
Trump is extremely sensitive to anything that might suggest his presidency is illegitimate because of Russian interference, which appears to be why McConnell won’t bring election security legislation to a vote. A more cynical interpretation is that Republicans don’t want to limit Russian interference that could be beneficial to Republicans and to Trump’s reelection.
McConnell doesn’t flinch when he’s under assault by what he regards as partisan forces. He broke with norms and held the late Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court seat open for a year and won the gamble he could fill it with a Republican after the 2016 election.
But the current controversy, and the idea that he’s gone soft on the Russians to greenlight a $200 million aluminum mill in Kentucky underwritten by Russian oligarch Oleg Derispaska, “has legs here,” says Dave Caffetino, a Kentucky-based Democratic consultant. “This one is a little close to home.”
“This is something that stings him both locally and nationally,” Caffetino told the Daily Beast. “He doesn’t object when Trump throws around charges of traitors and unpatriotic, but when it lands on him, he’s pretty sensitive.”
A new billboard along Interstate 65 in Hart County, Kentucky, has a photo of McConnell next to the words, "Putin's Mitch."
For someone who savors killing legislation, this attack clearly got under his skin, says Max Bergmann, who directs the Moscow Project at the liberal Center for American Progress.
“The truth hurts in this case,” says Bergmann, who starts his critique of McConnell’s behavior with the Republican leader’s refusal to publicly condemn Russian interference in the 2016 election after being implored to do so by President Obama, and after he was briefed on it by the intelligence community.
“At that moment, he had the power to defang Russian intervention, and he refused to do it,” Bergmann told the Daily Beast.
Early this year, McConnell worked to defeat a bipartisan attempt to stop the White House from lifting sanctions against three Russian businesses connected to the Russian oligarch, Deripaska, who is close to Russian President Putin. McConnell accused the Democrats of politicizing the sanctions even though 11 Republicans joined the Democrats in legislation that failed by just three votes.
“The Big Reveal here,” says Bergmann, “is that after the sanctions lifted, one of those businesses (RusAl) announced a $200 million investment in a new aluminum plant in Kentucky.
“It sure looks like a quid pro quo,” says Bergmann. “McConnell had the ability to stop the Trump administration from watering down the sanctions. After he refuses to do so, there’s a massive investment into his home state in the same cycle he’s running for reelection.”
This is how the swamp works. It’s also how McConnell wins reelection. Travis Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Kentucky, told the Daily Beast, “I have friends who are as liberal as the day is long and they’re still voting for McConnell because he takes care of Kentucky. With the coal industry declining, anything that brings in good paying blue collar jobs is going to be well received.”
McConnell’s ties to Trump are critical, says Caffetino. “He has to stay close to Trump because if he draws the president’s ire, it complicates his reelection.” In a poll that Caffetino did on McConnell in 2017, the majority leader’s numbers were collapsing among Republicans because he and Trump were bickering.
“He dug himself out of a hole by becoming a champion of Kavanaugh,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who with McConnell’s help successfully won confirmation despite charges of sexual misconduct. “Once he (McConnell) went full Trump, his numbers recovered with the conservative base,” says Caffetino.
McConnell is fully intertwined with Trump. At the debate Wednesday evening, candidate Julian Castro pressed the case for impeachment, saying if the Senate failed to convict Trump, Democrats could say “his friend Mitch McConnell, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook.”
McConnell is facing a Democratic challenger next year with plenty of money and star power. Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, came within a few percentage points of winning a congressional seat in 2018, and McConnell has to take her seriously. “Every poll I have done has McConnell underwater in favorability and job performance,” says Caffetino.
McConnell has always pulled through on election day. Could this time be different?