Is the McConnell era in Kentucky politics over?
As Trump makes a political punching bag of the senior senator, Tuesday’s election may tell what kind of Republican Party this state has.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, at the U.S. Capitol, speaking to reporters. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)
Mitch McConnell is back in the saddle as leader of Republican senators, but his status as the leader of Kentucky Republicans seems in doubt as they head toward Tuesday’s primary election.
First, a Washington update: After a 40-day absence from a fall and a head injury, the 81-year McConnell (he’s exactly nine months older than Joe Biden) is reasserting himself in public statements.
He’s backing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s gambit to leverage the nation’s debt ceiling to win spending cuts, while trying to reassure the world that the government won’t stop paying what it owes — and saying Congress will keep funding the defense of Ukraine “for a good deal longer.”
And the Senate minority leader, who operates mainly behind the scenes, is playing some very public politics.
He told Bloomberg News that fired Fox News opinionator Tucker Carlson “had developed a coterie of followers in the Congress as well as in the country that I found disturbing.” (Note the past-tense wishful thinking.) Carlson has been perhaps the leading critic of U.S. support for Ukraine — billions that McConnell said would be “a bargain” if it can defeat Russia — and has tried to whitewash what happened on Jan. 6, 2021.
“At the risk of patting myself on the back, not many Republicans went after Tucker Carlson, but I did,” McConnell told Bloomberg, referring to his March 7 objection to Carlson’s grossly misleading presentation about the insurrection at the Capitol.
But we are sinking further into the age of post-truth politics, in which Carlson can announce he’s starting a new show on Twitter and say “The news you consume is a lie,” arguing implicitly that only he is to be believed. Sadly, millions are likely to swallow that hogwash.
This age was started by Donald Trump, whom McConnell tried to read out of the Republican Party on Jan. 6 and afterward. That effort backfired, as McConnell’s poll numbers among Republicans sank and Trump’s remained high.
That, and Trump’s continued castigations of McConnell, explain why the man who built the modern GOP in Kentucky has become a punching bag for Republicans trying to win votes in Tuesday’s primary.
In the governor’s race, that strategy was limited to Eric Deters, a Trump-embracing firebrand from Northern Kentucky who has called Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and former ambassador Kelly Craft “swamp puppets” of McConnell. Then Craft ran a TV ad that depicted Cameron and McConnell as “career politicians who’d rather follow than lead,” and scheduled Saturday rallies in Louisville and Richmond with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, McConnell’s arch-enemy. Her campaign has become a pure anti-McConnell play, despite the support she and her billionaire husband, coal operator Joe Craft, have given McConnell in the past.
Jumping on the bandwagon, auditor candidate Derek Pettys is running a radio ad against Treasurer Allison Ball, saying he’s not tied to McConnell or Frankfort lobbyists. And no candidate is touting ties to McConnell.
Cameron has Trump’s endorsement but is a McConnell protégé who seems to have the senator’s back-channel support. He rarely brings up McConnell’s name, and has often mentioned Trump’s backing. But in Tuesday night’s statewide debate, he mentioned neither man, perhaps thinking that voters who watch debates are less likely to be influenced by such an endorsement — and maybe that Trump’s radioactivity increased with Tuesday’s verdict by a New York jury that Trump should pay $5 million for sexual abuse of a woman who accused him of rape.
The debate’s first question sought reaction to that afternoon’s verdict. Cameron bailed: “I don’t know the specifics of the complaint,” he said of the widely reported case. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles did likewise: “We’re still finding out the details.” Deters said, “I believe the woman is lying.”
Craft, who has avoided most debates, didn’t attend — apparently hoping that the massive ad campaign financed by her husband’s wealth will make up for her shortage of qualifications. Despite that, in the KET debate she said “We are going to leave my husband out of it.” Sorry, but no. Maybe Joe should be on the ballot; he’s an executive.
McConnell has been the stoutest advocate of money in politics, which has become more important as local and state news coverage has shriveled and voters focus on national issues and personalities. That’s one reason visits by Cruz may have more impact now than they would have had eight years ago, when he was running for president (finishing second to Trump in the Kentucky caucuses). Messages are more controlled by candidates, and they’re more often misleading. Maybe that’s why as few as 10% of Republicans will vote, as predicted by Secretary of State Michael Adams – who says he could lose to an election denier because voters aren’t paying attention.
Tuesday may tell us what sort of Republican Party we have in Kentucky.
This column is republished from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.
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