By Charles Babington
MADISONVILLE, KY.: Democrats dream of driving U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell into retirement this year, ridding President Barack Obama of one of his fiercest opponents. Tea partyers have the same dream, but they say the Senate’s Republican leader actually is too accommodating to Democrats.
This left-right squeeze is forcing McConnell to scrape as hard as ever to raise money and try to extend his 30-year Senate career into a sixth term.
The squeeze also may be his salvation.
It obscures divisions among the critics who drive up McConnell’s unpopularity ratings, often cited as his biggest problem. His Democratic critics can’t vote in the May 20 Republican primary, when McConnell will hold an edge in name recognition and money. If he survives the primary, his tea party detractors are unlikely to vote Democratic in the November general election.
As for less ideological voters, McConnell hopes his role in crafting major compromises with Democrats will burnish his can-do image among Kentuckians, many of whom register as Democrats but often vote Republican in federal elections.
“Farmers love Mitch McConnell,” said 10-term U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who introduced the senator at a recent coal-related event in snow-covered western Kentucky. “The coal industry is totally supportive of Mitch McConnell.”
But some Kentuckians say McConnell’s political strength in Washington, where he sometimes brokers deals with Democrats, could be his campaign weakness back home. Kentucky rejected Obama twice in landslides. Five of its six U.S. House members are Republicans.
In an interview after the coal rally in Madisonville, about 150 miles southwest of Louisville, McConnell acknowledged the dilemma. Starting with the 2004 defeat of the Senate’s Democratic leader, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, nationwide targeting of Senate leaders “is the new paradigm,” McConnell said.
“That changed my life here,” he said, noting that groups from the left and right spend millions to attack him on television.
McConnell cited his role in “four major deals” during Obama’s presidency: a 2010 extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts; a mid-2011 bid to avert a government default and seek a spending-cut mechanism; the end-of-2012 “fiscal cliff” deal; and last fall’s agreement to end a GOP-driven government shutdown.
Tea party groups blast him for cutting such deals with Democrats. But, McConnell said, “If it’s important for the country and there’s enough grounds for agreement, I don’t object to doing business with them.”
On some issues, including the new health-care law, McConnell fiercely opposes Obama. On others, such as immigration, McConnell fades into the background, forcing other Republicans to lead.
Back home, McConnell, who turns 72 on Thursday, visits Kentucky towns most weekends, and presses his staff to handle constituents’ requests.
“He’s the only one who helped me,” said 70-year-old Anita Stirsman, citing McConnell’s role in securing a government benefit for a relative 20 years ago. She has never forgotten, she said, as she awaited McConnell’s Madisonville speech.
McConnell was the undisputed king of Kentucky Republican politics until 2010. That’s when Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, son of libertarian hero Ron Paul, clobbered McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in a GOP Senate primary. Ever since, McConnell has tried to placate tea party critics, even hiring Paul’s campaign manager for his own race.