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In debate, Democrats turn to a popular target who’s not Donald Trump

House Democrats and federal workers visit Sen. McConnell’s office in protest over government shutdown

Dozens of furloughed federal workers gathered outside of Sen. Mitch McConnell's office to protest the government shutdown. A group of House Democrats also delivered a letter to McConnell, urging him to reopen the government.
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Dozens of furloughed federal workers gathered outside of Sen. Mitch McConnell's office to protest the government shutdown. A group of House Democrats also delivered a letter to McConnell, urging him to reopen the government.

Mitch McConnell got nearly as many mentions in the first 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate as the man Democrats are looking to oust from the White House.

It was fresh evidence that the Kentucky Republican has emerged as one of the Democrats’ most valuable villains, a role he’s likely to continue playing as the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns unfold.

But as moderators pressed the Democrats about whether they had a plan to “deal” with McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who delights in portraying himself as the “Grim Reaper” who crushes Democratic legislation, the candidates generally had little to offer.

“I do,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, said to audience applause. She suggested that even if McConnell remains Majority Leader after 2020 and Democrats take the White House, Democrats need to “push from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who has championed efforts to tackle climate change, quipped that he’d take action “first by taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell.” It takes 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate. Democrats now control 47 of the 100 seats.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, pressed for Democrats to broaden their appeal beyond the two coasts.

“If you want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working class party,” he said. “If you want to go into Kentucky and take his rear end out, if you want to take Lindsey Graham out, you have to have a blue collar party.”

The few minutes of discussion about McConnell during the debate reinforced the notion that he’s become a focus for 2020 Democrats who have sought to portray him as the embodiment of a sclerotic government that gets little done.

And it served to delight McConnell.

“Being criticized for stopping the liberal agenda and confirming conservative judges? I love it,” McConnell said Thursday as he walked off the Senate floor after delivering his morning remarks. “The things they’re criticizing me for I plead guilty to.”

Unlike House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a frequent GOP target — McConnell was a rarity in TV ads as a villain during last year’s congressional midterm elections. But his highly public role in last year’s contentious Senate debate to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and his refusal this year to take up much of the legislation passed by the new Democratic-run House is giving Democrats fresh ammunition.

It’s not been a bother for McConnell’s team, which sees every Democratic hit as bolstering the Kentucky Republican among party loyalists.

“The entire line of attack is ironic because their effort to demonize McConnell is centered around him doing too much for Kentucky and preserving a conservative Supreme Court,” said Josh Holmes, a McConnell political adviser. “Clearly Democrats have conceded McConnell’s reelection because I can’t think of two things Mitch McConnell himself would like to talk about with more frequency than those.”

Democrats have yet to field a candidate to challenge McConnell for re-election. Kentucky House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins said Wednesday he has been approached about running for the Democratic nomination but has not yet decided.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has courted former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath. Kentucky Sports Radio founder Matt Jones said he has spoken to Democratic senators about running.

A poll paid for by a Democratic-leaning group, End Citizens United, which opposes unlimited campaign spending, suggests that nationwide, McConnell can be a more potent motivator for Democratic and independent voters than Trump.

The survey of 1,212 voters in 12 states gave Democrats a 3 percentage point advantage on a generic ballot for Congress. But after a message that accused McConnell of “refusing to debate legislation that would crack down on political corruption” was introduced to the mix, the Democratic advantage grew to 12 percentage points. It jumped 6 percentage points when Trump was mentioned.

“Mitch McConnell is a very effective villain in battleground states and invoking him in messaging persuades voters more than referencing Trump or Republicans in Congress,” the polling company, Global Strategy Group said in a memo.

The poll, which was conducted as a broader effort to help Democrats shape a 2020 message on political corruption and money in politics, was conducted April 26 to May 8 across 12 presidential battleground states including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

“McConnell really is the definition of what’s wrong with Washington for a lot of voters,” said Matt Canter, senior vice president at the Global Strategy Group. “They see him as representing the kind of self-interested politics that has rigged the system.”

End Citizens United, which last month launched a $50,000 digital ad campaign in Kentucky against McConnell, has shared the polling results with both House and Senate Democratic campaign committees. Some candidates, including those in states that Trump won, are already including McConnell in their messaging.

In her first Texas Senate ad, MJ Hegar, a Democrat and former Air Force helicopter pilot running against Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, included footage of Cornyn, then Republican Senate Majority Whip, standing at McConnell’s side.

“He’s that tall guy lurking behind Mitch McConnell in basically every single video,” she says in the ad which never pictures Trump. Cornyn “calls himself Big John,” Hegar says in the ad, “but he shrinks out of the way while Mitch McConnell gets in the way of anything actually getting done in our government.”

Maine Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is challenging Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, used two clips of McConnell in her first ad, tying Collins to her vote to confirm Kavanaugh and the other underscoring McConnell’s promise that Collins won’t hurt for campaign money.

“Getting things done for Mainers is what we’re elected to do, not falling in line behind the demands of someone else,” Gideon says in the ad. “It doesn’t matter if that person is (former Maine Gov.) Paul LePage, Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, a Senate Democrat who faces a potentially significant primary challenge, repeatedly raises McConnell’s name in fundraising appeals.

In one, Markey, who has championed the Green New Deal as an effort to combat climate change, accuses McConnell of holding a “sham vote” on the measure “to appease Big Oil and the Koch brothers.”

Another accuses McConnell of being the “one person standing in the way of progress,” including the Green New Deal and two other bills that Markey has introduced.

“Senator McConnell is standing in the way of all this progress,” the e-mail says. “Not because he disagrees with it, but because it came from me —a Democrat.”

The Democratic charges have done little to rattle McConnell or his re-election team, which has enthusiastically embraced the image as a slayer of Democratic dreams.

After Pelosi earlier this month displayed a chart labeled “McConnell’s Graveyard,” that featured tombstones named after various House bills that McConnell has blocked, his campaign began selling $35 “Grim Reaper” t-shirts.

“For the first time in my memory, I agree with Nancy Pelosi,” a smiling McConnell told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
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