by Gabe Bullard
To mark the centennial of the state Capitol building in Frankfort, WFPL and Kentucky Public Radio are spotlighting some of Kentucky’s top statesmen, influential political leaders who served the commonwealth in Frankfort or Washington, or both.
When George W. Bush left the White House in 2009, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky became the most powerful Republican officeholder in Washington. He’s earned a reputation over the last 18 months as the opposition leader, working behind the scenes to keep his 41-member conference united against Democratic majorities. It’s a controversial role given the electoral sweeps Democrats commanded in 2006 and 2008. But as McConnell’s modern reputation is being forged, his legacy in his home state is well established.
An easy place to start an overview of McConnell’s life is the center that bears his name on the University of Louisville campus. As we head to the Senator’s archives, center director Gary Gregg points out a stack of typewritten papers in a glass display case.
“His senior thesis when he was here at the University was on Henry Clay and the compromise of 1850,” says Gregg. “So there it is right there, and you think of, then, 40 years later, he is occupying the Henry Clay desk in the U.S. Senate.”
From writing about Clay to sitting at his desk, McConnell’s rise to power seems almost pre-determined by the Senator himself, from his time on student governments to Washington internships to his campaign for Jefferson County Judge Executive, an office he took in 1978, serving opposite then-Mayor and Democrat Harvey Sloane.
“He’s a very shrewd politician,” says Sloane.
Despite a hard-fought campaign for Senate against McConnell in 1990 and occasional disagreements in local government, Sloane says he had a strong working relationship with McConnell, especially on two failed merger campaigns in Louisville in 1982 and 83. Sloane says those campaigns laid the groundwork for the 2003 merger, and McConnell agrees.
“The fact that we had come close in those years brought about a kind of consensus over a period of time to try it again,” says McConnell.
Around that same time, McConnell began his long-planned bid for the Senate, during which he made political history with two negative campaign ads: the Roger Ailes-produced Hound Dog ads featured blood hounds searching for incumbent senator Dee Huddleston.
“I had been running for about two years and was still way behind and we needed to come up with something to get people interested in the contest,” says McConnell. “The feeling was if people just stayed asleep I would have no chance.”
The ads helped McConnell win the seat. Biographer John David Dyche says in subsequent, McConnell helped give Republicans in his home state new strength, turning both Kentucky Senate seats most House seats, and for the first time in decades, the governor’s office to the GOP.
“He was probably a critical man in turning Kentucky into a bona fide two-party state in a way that has lasted,” says Dyche.
McConnell has built a political legacy in his home state, but Dyche says his national reputation is being established now. McConnell is known as a shrewd tactician in the Senate, but the extent of that skill is being tested–he’s supporting Rand Paul the Tea Party Senate candidate he previously opposed and disagrees with on several issues. He will also be partly responsible for the GOP’s survival in the face of the Tea Party movement and dissatisfaction with incumbents in Washington.
As we reach the end of the archives tour at U of L, McConnell Center director Gary Gregg says the senator has always been a student of history, but now he’s becoming part of it.
“For good or for ill, you will be unable to write the history of the Obama administration without writing partly a history of Mitch McConnell and his leadership of the U.S. Senate,” says Gregg.
“Do you think that’ll be part of the archives?” I ask.
“I certainly hope so,” he says.