The Citizens United Senator: After GOP's Midterm Rout, Mitch McConnell Likely Next Majority Leader

November 05, 2014


Phillip Bailey

freelance journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a former political editor at the local NPR affiliate radio station WFPL.

Republicans have emerged from Tuesday’s midterm elections with control of Congress for the first time in eight years by winning key Senate seats and strengthening their majority in the House. Republican candidates won at least 10 of the day’s 13 closely contested Senate races, giving the party control of the Senate for the first time since 2007. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell is expected to become the next Senate majority leader after defeating Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in one of the nation’s highest-profile contests. McConnell has played a leading role in fighting campaign finance reform and supporting the Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited election spending. The $4 billion price tag made this election the most expensive midterm in history. We look at the Kentucky race and what to expect out of a McConnell-led Senate with Phillip Bailey, a freelance journalist in Louisville.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A Republican rout. That’s how Tuesday’s election, the most expensive midterm election in history, is being described after the Republicans took control of the Senate, strengthened its control in the House and took a number of key gubernatorial races.

Republican candidates won at least 10 of the day’s 13 closely contested Senate races, giving the party control of the Senate for the first time since 2007. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is expected to become the next Senate majority leader, after he withstood a challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who refused to say during the campaign whether she had voted for President Obama, although she had been once an Obama delegate. Three sitting Democratic senators lost races. In North Carolina, Thom Tillis defeated Kay Hagan. In Arkansas, Tom Cotton unseated Senator Mark Pryor. And in Colorado, Senator Mark Udall lost to Congressmember Cory Gardner. The political landscape could still worsen for the Democrats, as the Senate race in Alaska remains too close to call and Louisiana is headed for a runoff in December.

This is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking last night at his victory speech in Louisville, Kentucky.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Tonight, they said we can have real change in Washington. Real change. And that’s just what I intend to deliver. So, friends, tonight turns a corner, and the future I see is a bright one. Americans have seen that what the current crowd in Washington is offering is making us weaker both at home and abroad. They have had enough. You know, there’s an old saying that’s often attributed to Winston Churchill that I’m reminded of. Here’s what he said about us, about Americans. He said, "You know the Americans. They always do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else first."

AMY GOODMAN: The Republicans also picked up at least 10 more House seats, giving the party its largest majority since World War II.

President Obama is facing a similar predicament as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the last three presidents to serve two terms. They all governed for the final two years with the opposition controlling both chambers of Congress.

The Republican Party also strengthened its control in gubernatorial races as Republican candidates in Maryland, Arkansas, Illinois and Massachusetts took control of seats that had previously been held by Democrats. A number of sitting Republican governors also overcame strong challenges, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. In one of the rare Democratic upsets on Tuesday, Tom Wolf is projected to have beaten incumbent Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett. Republicans also picked up gubernatorial victories in the traditional blue states of Massachusetts and Illinois.

We begin our show in Kentucky. Phillip Bailey is a freelance journalist in Louisville. He’s a former political editor at the local NPR affiliate radio station, WFPL.

Phillip, why don’t you talk about this extremely significant race, not only for Kentucky, but for the nation, since the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, could now become the Senate majority leader if Republicans decide to choose him? Talk about this race, Phillip Bailey.

PHILLIP BAILEY: Yeah, I think that, you know, this is what Mitch McConnell has always wanted. The coveted position since he was first elected way back in 1984 was to be Senate majority leader. He is all but guaranteed to get that position. There seems to be really no one else who wants the job or Republicans are galvanizing around, even though there have been a few who say they don’t want to vote for McConnell, or they don’t want to answer the question, at least. I think it’s all but assured that Mitch McConnell will be Senate majority leader.

There are a few questions. During this campaign, reporters really weren’t clear on—in asking the senator what the agenda was, if he took over the Senate. McConnell would say, "Well, I don’t want to show my hand too early. Let’s not measure the drapes." So, we’re all interested to see what exactly is going to happen with this new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Will there be more cooperation with President Obama? Will President Obama be more aggressive?

McConnell has often said on the campaign trail, "I was the defensive coordinator; now I get to be the offensive coordinator." Those are two very different roles. On defense, a large part of what you do is to cause problems for the offense, to disrupt. Many Democrats would refer to McConnell as "Mr. Obstructionist" or "the doctor of dysfunction." Well, now he has to govern, as well. And particularly for Republicans going into 2016, it’s important for them to show how they can govern, as many show, the exit polls, that the American voters are very frustrated with Congress overall. No matter how unpopular President Obama is, Congress is less popular. So, Americans seem to be saying, "Let’s get something done, anything done." So we’re all interested to see how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can get that accomplished.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Senator McConnell speaking last night in Louisville.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Some things don’t change after tonight. I don’t expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning. He knows I won’t, either.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mitch McConnell. Phillip, can you talk about what the key issues were in Kentucky and why this senator—who was the minority leader, could become the majority leader—actually really was given quite a run for his money? And it was a lot of money.

PHILLIP BAILEY: Yeah, exactly. I mean, one thing is, Mitch McConnell, probably more than any other politician in the United States, is associated with being the architect of Citizens United. He has often said that money is speech. He has filed amicus briefs in many of those Supreme Court cases seeking to tear down McCain-Feingold or campaign finance law. So this race, in many ways, was Mitch McConnell’s dream come true, and you did see somewhere north of $80 million spent in it.

The question is: What did that money get us besides a bunch of TV ads? There was only one debate. For the most part, the candidates talked about coal and President Obama, McConnell saying and his allies saying that Grimes would be a surrogate for Obama, Grimes spending a large part of her time saying, "I’m not Barack Obama," literally saying that in a TV commercial. So the question is: With all this money in politics, what does it actually get voters? We didn’t have a conversation, for example, about a lot of infrastructure issues in Kentucky. Heroin, the epidemic here in the state, did not come up. We certainly didn’t have a conversation about Internet broadband access. A large part of it was spent on coal, with both candidates trying to show who’s more of a champion for coal. Very little conversation came up about, well, how does the free market impact coal, and the idea that it costs more money to extract coal from the ground. So, a lot of that was missed in this campaign, but it certainly did buy a lot of entertaining ads.

As far as Grimes, she did initially think—people thought that she was going to give McConnell a run for her money, which is why many, I think, Democrats left with their jaws dropped, considering she lost by 15 points, pretty much a blowout, and that she only won, I believe, nine or 10 counties in the entire state out of the 120 counties. So, this was a rout, as far as that race was concerned. But Democrats still did hold onto state House. But still, no one really expected Grimes to lose the way she did. She underperformed heavily in Democratic strongholds like Louisville and Lexington. So you do have a lot of Democrats pointing figures at each other now, trying to figure out what went wrong. I think the McConnell campaign had probably the easiest and best strategy the entire summer: Barack Obama is unpopular, she’s Barack Obama, make me Senate majority leader, Kentucky will be in power. That is essentially what Mitch McConnell said for a year and a half, and that’s what Kentucky voters supported.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board, refusing to reveal whether she voted for President Barack Obama.

REPORTER: Did you vote for President Obama, 2008, 2012?

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: You know, this election, it isn’t about the president. It’s about—

REPORTER: I know, but did you vote for him?

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: —making sure we put Kentuckians back to work. And—

REPORTER: Did you vote for him?

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: I was actually in '08 a delegate for Hillary Clinton. And I think that Kentuckians know I'm a Clinton Democrat through and through. I respect the sanctity of the ballot box, and I know that the members of this editorial board do, as well.

REPORTER: So you’re not going to answer.

AMY GOODMAN: So she has referred to herself as a Clinton Democrat, but not an Obama Democrat. And didn’t this non-answer, though she had been an Obama delegate at the convention earlier and was then secretary of state of Kentucky, sort of emblematic of Democrats around the country, Phillip Bailey, when it came to their relationship with President Obama in this election?

PHILLIP BAILEY: More so than any single Democrat, that answer probably epitomized the problem that the national Democratic Party and Democrats had in this midterm election: How do you reconcile running in states where Barack Obama lost, when he’s still the head of your party? It was surprising, given that Grimes understood very early on that this was going to be the strategy, that she was so unprepared for that question. At first she tries to sort of blow through with a talking point. Then she says, "Well, I was a Clinton delegate." And then she just creates this very weird answer of, "Well, I don’t want to say anything. It’s the sanctity of the vote." Well, you’re running for U.S. Senate. Voters and other folks are interested in who you voted for. So there were many ways for her to answer that. That came off to a lot of folks as phony, to be quite honest.

If you look at the turnout numbers—take Louisville, for example, which is a Democratic stronghold, you have half a million Democrats registered, far more than Republicans in the city. John Yarmuth, who represents a good portion of the city with his district, a liberal congressman, the only Democrat representing Kentucky in Washington, got about 157,000 votes. Grimes only got 144,000 votes from more precincts in Louisville. So that disconnect right there shows that there were some Democrats, probably the liberal Democrats, who said, "You know what? I’m not going to associate myself with Alison Lundergan Grimes. She doesn’t want to associate herself with Obama. She doesn’t want to stick up for the environment."

So, what many Democrats I hear saying this morning are—what they’re saying is, once again, Kentucky Democratic Party officials have run a lukewarm candidate, someone who was trying to be a Republican, and this is what you get. Now you have a Mitch McConnell blowout. Remember, about a year and half ago, many Democrats were arguing about whether it should be Ashley Judd running for U.S. Senate. And many moderate to conservative Democrats said, "Well, if Ashley Judd runs, she’ll get blown out by 15, 20 points."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Phillip Bailey, I want to thank you for being with us, freelance journalist in Louisville, Kentucky, former political editor at the local NPR affiliate radio station, WFPL. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by Lee Fang, who has been investigating the money trail. Yes, Mitch McConnell was given a run for his money—and there was plenty of money. Did money win big in these midterm elections, the most expensive, $4 billion, in history? Stay with us.

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