In the late 1990s, Mitch McConnell placed a personal phone call to a female student at the University of Louisville. He wasn’t setting up a romantic liaison. The woman was running as a conservative candidate for student body president, and McConnell, a sitting U.S. senator, was calling to offer unsolicited campaign advice.
McConnell’s phone call was not out of character. Over the last 20 years, he has inserted himself into almost every significant Kentucky political race from governor to, well, student body president, ensuring that almost all major GOP elected officials in the state owe their success in large part to him. McConnell was among the first Kentucky politicians to understand that, unlike in some other Southern states, cultural issues such as gun control and abortion would be more effective than coded racial appeals, since Kentucky has a relatively small black population, and therefore a lower level of white resentment. In 1994, he met with Ron Lewis, a clergyman and Christian bookstore owner, at a Bob Evans restaurant in Louisville. “They ought to put a historic marker there because that was where the modern Kentucky Republican Party was born,” Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky political columnist, told me. At that meeting, McConnell convinced Lewis that by using an anti-Clinton message of cultural conservatism, he could win a House district that had never once gone Republican. He then consolidated control over Lewis’s candidacy by getting him to replace his campaign manager with a McConnell staffer, Terry Carmack. That same year, McConnell also persuaded Ed Whitfield, a Democrat, to run as a Republican for a Western Kentucky congressional seat. Both Lewis and Whitfield were elected.
Since that initial success, McConnell has expanded his influence. In 1996, he played a major role in the election to Congress of Republican Rep. Anne Northup (in a sign of the close ties between McConnell and Northup, Carmack is now Northup’s chief-of-staff). Then two years later, he engineered the election to the U.S. Senate of fellow Republican Jim Bunning. In 2004, McConnell all but took control of Bunning’s re-election campaign in its final weeks, after the former major league pitcher had damaged himself with a series of bizarre public statements. McConnell forbade Bunning from speaking to the press, and helped the incumbent eke out a narrow win. That same year, McConnell also had a major hand in Republican Rep. Geoff Davis’s successful run for a U.S. House seat. Lewis, Whitfield, Northup, Davis, and Bunning all remain firm McConnell allies.
Perhaps McConnell’s greatest coup, for a while, was the election in 2003 of another Republican, Ernie Fletcher as Kentucky governor. Earlier that year, McConnell had invited Fletcher—then a congressman who had expressed no statewide ambitions—to his Capitol Hill office, and convinced him to run. Fletcher agreed, and even named Hunter Bates, McConnell’s longtime chief of staff and the manager of his 2002 reelection campaign, as his running-mate. Bates, though, was such a creature of Washington—and of McConnell—that he was quickly knocked off the ticket when a court found that he had lived for so long in the D.C. area that he was ineligible to be elected to political office in Kentucky.
Fletcher won the race, but soon proved to be a major embarrassment to Republicans: He was indicted this year on corruption charges stemming from a system of rewarding political allies with state jobs. Though he says he has no plans to step down, his approval ratings are in the low 30s. McConnell, fearing that other Republican elected officials like Northup and Davis could become casualties of voters’ anger with Fletcher and the party, has dropped his one-time protégé, and is said to favor replacing him with Whitfield. In an effort to force Fletcher out of office, McConnell has met with the state’s leading Republicans to urge them not to support the governor. Given McConnell’s clout in Kentucky politics, Fletcher’s days in office may be numbered.
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Cliff Schecter is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and a weekly guest on“The Young Turks” radio program. He worked on Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and on the campaign of Sen. McConnell’s Democratic challenger in 2002.