Democratic and liberal groups in three states with vulnerable Republican senators are running television and digital ads linking them to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP’s increasingly unpopular leader in the Senate.
The spots are mirror images of ads Republicans deployed for years linking House Democrats to now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The tactic shows how, even in an era where hatred of President Donald Trump holds together an unwieldy Democratic coalition, McConnell has still emerged as a uniquely unpopular villain in U.S. politics.
“McConnell has been at the center of the obstruction and special interest deals that have broken the Senate for years, but under Donald Trump he’s come under a bright national spotlight that has turned his obstruction and corruption into a serious problem for Republican senators,” said Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist working for the progressive group Fix Our Senate. “Across the map, they’re facing serious consequences for supporting him.”
It’s unclear, at least for now, if anti-McConnell messaging can actually sway independent voters and become a central feature of the battle for the Senate. Polling indicates that McConnell is clearly disliked but lacks universal name identification. Republicans remain skeptical that McConnell will become a central villain for anyone other than committed Democratic partisans.
Most of the ads so far have not come from the top-funded Democratic Senate groups — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) or Senate Majority PAC, both of which are controlled by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his allies.
But Democratic strategists still believe McConnell can serve a role that Trump cannot: While tying Republicans to Trump links them to chaos and racism, tying the same politicians to a powerful career politician such as McConnell links them to a Washington that many Americans see as corrupt and unaccountable.
At the same time, the party’s plan to use McConnell as a boogeyman in states like Iowa, Texas and Georgia where Trump remained popular has run into an unexpected development: Trump’s recent tumble in polling means there are relatively few places on the Senate map where attacking him might backfire.
The ads, running in Maine, Colorado and Arizona, argue that those states’ incumbent Republican senators are more interested in following McConnell than in authentically representing their states.
“You supported Mitch McConnell by voting for billions in tax breaks for big corporations. But what about us?” a Maine voter named Louise said to GOP Sen. Susan Collins in one of the ads, paid for by a nonprofit called the 16 Counties Coalition. Another ad in Maine, paid for by the group Tax March, invokes McConnell as it attacks Collins for taking money from corporate PACs.
In Colorado, McConnell briefly appears alongside Trump in a Senate Majority PAC ad attacking Gardner for being a tool of national Republicans. Another ad in the state, from the group Rocky Mountain Values, depicts McConnell as a puppet master moving the puppet strings of Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner and forcing him to vote against legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
“The drug companies control Gardner, McConnell and the Senate,” the ad’s narrator says.
And in Arizona, a group called the Western Independence Project has run a slew of digital ads calling on GOP Sen. Martha McSally to stand up to McConnell over the GOP’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and health care.
“Mitch McConnell handpicked Martha McSally for her seat in the Senate. Since then, whenever McConnell Asks, McSally votes - Even to take away health care Arizonans need in times of crisis,” reads one of the ads in Facebook’s political advertising archive.
The DSCC, meanwhile, did launch an anti-McConnell digital ad blitz in April following the leader’s call for states to go into bankruptcy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic instead of receiving aid from Washington.
Colorado, Arizona and Maine are all expected to be major Senate battlegrounds. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and Democrats almost certainly need to win in all three states to gain back control of the chamber.
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is in a tight race with Collins, according to public polling, while former astronaut Mark Kelly has a healthy lead over McSally in Arizona. In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper must survive a primary on Tuesday before he can battle Gardner, who is considered the most vulnerable Republican senator.
All three incumbent Republicans would quibble with the idea that they are hopelessly loyal to McConnell. Collins’ advertising, for instance, regularly boasts that she was named the nation’s “most bipartisan senator,” while Gardner often talks up his work to promote the marijuana industry in a party skeptical of drug legalization.
Public polling confirms that McConnell is widely disliked. Nationally, an Economist/YouGov poll conducted last week found that just 29% of registered voters had a favorable opinion of the Senate leader, while 54% had an unfavorable opinion and 18% were unsure. Even among Republicans, a mere 51% had a favorable opinion, while 28% had a negative opinion.
McConnell’s net favorability of -25 is markedly worse than both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose net favorability stands at -11, and Trump, who has a net favorability of -13.
Some state polling shows similar patterns: A Colby College poll of Maine conducted in February showed that Trump was more popular in the state than McConnell. A Democratic pollster’s survey of Colorado, conducted in May, found the same result.
Still, Republicans are unconvinced that McConnell is in any way a political danger to the incumbents he’s relying on to keep control of the Senate. Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell, said all-important swing voters won’t be moved by invocations of his former boss.
“If you’ve been as successful as McConnell has at bedeviling the left for as long as he has, there’s a core group of Democratic partisans in every state that can be activated by his name,” Holmes said. “If your goal is to persuade independents, it’s not going to be effective.”
Regardless of his effect on up-for-grabs voters, McConnell’s image will still help fill Democratic coffers: His decision to stonewall the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 elevated his profile among Democratic partisans and turned him into fundraising gold for Senate Democrats.
The DSCC, Democratic candidates and incumbents all regularly feature him in Facebook ads designed to build their donor lists, and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath ― the party’s long-assumed candidate against McConnell ― was able to raise more than $40 million to run against him. (McGrath found herself in a closer-than-expected primary last week against state Rep. Charles Booker. The winner of the race will remain unclear until more ballot results are revealed on Tuesday.)