House Democrats are making McConnell — not Trump — their new boogeyman

But presidential antics will inevitably trickle down to congressional races

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is increasingly being cast as a villain blocking Democratic legislation, especially by lawmakers running in districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is increasingly being cast as a villain blocking Democratic legislation, especially by lawmakers running in districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 27, 2020 at 5:37pm

While Democrats in Washington are attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s management of the impeachment trial, it’s his role in blocking House-passed legislation that is getting the most campaign airtime so far this year.

The latest example, and a likely preview of what is to come, is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s announcement Monday of a seven-figure cable and online ad campaign focused on the Senate bottling up a bill intended to lower prescription drug prices.

That House Democrats are using McConnell as their foil, and not the Republican leader of their own chamber or President Donald Trump, speaks to the legislative and political realities confronting Democrats this cycle.

After winning a historic majority in 2018, House Democrats passed bills on key priorities they had campaigned on, including a campaign finance and ethics overhaul, legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases and a health insurance measure that targeted prescription drugs and expanding Medicare to cover hearing aids, eyeglasses and dental care.

Those measures were all dead on arrival in the Senate, however. For Democratic incumbents looking to talk about what they’ve done — but why it hasn’t become law — McConnell gets the blame.

That’s especially true for Democrats in the 30 districts Trump won in 2016 because they won’t have to attack a president their constituents may have supported.

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Popularity varies

Not all Democrats agree this is an effective or even worthwhile strategy, especially during a presidential election year, when Trump will be at the top of the ticket, whether candidates talk about him or not.

At this point, however, Democrats love to talk about how unpopular McConnell is, just as Republicans have long talked about how voters dislike Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In the DCCC’s mid-January survey of 1,835 likely voters across battleground districts, 23 percent viewed McConnell favorably, while 50 percent rated him unfavorably. End Citizens United, a Democratic PAC, conducted similar polling in 2018 that found that talking about McConnell was more effective than talking about Trump when trying to move voters on a generic congressional ballot question.

“Even in districts where Trump is more popular than he is nationwide, McConnell just isn’t,” a national Democratic operative said.

While the utility of polling that isn’t focused on a specific district may be limited, Democrats who have embraced this narrative think they’ve found a credible villain who can work in a wide variety of districts.

“It works everywhere as an explanation for why House Democrats couldn’t bring about changes they campaigned on,” said Ian Russell, a veteran Democratic strategist and former DCCC political director.

The DCCC ads, which are running on CNN, MSNBC and Univision, tout the Democrats’ prescription drug bill and accuse Republicans of being corrupted by “special interest” money.

“It’s time for Mitch McConnell and the Republicans to start working for us,” the narrator says.

It’s a new message for a new political reality. In 2018, Russell said, the villains were Republicans who wouldn’t stand up to Trump. That will not work now that Democrats are in control of the House.

“He’s an important foil because he fits into the story, especially for House Democrats who ran on health care and government corruption,” Russell said.

McConnell may also provide a good political contrast because tying Republicans to Trump could backfire in districts where the president did well in 2016.

“If I’m in a Trump district, and I say, ‘Hey, she’s just following Trump’ — well, he won that district and probably will win it again — so they’ll vote for her, ” said a Democratic strategist who’s worked on House races.

It may be easier to reach Trump voters by talking about Republicans being beholden to McConnell.

“Trump has his own unique identity and own supporters,” the strategist added. McConnell, however, is easier to paint as a creature of Washington. He’s served six terms in the Senate, and his wife is a Cabinet secretary.

The majority of Democrats running in competitive districts are not eager to talk about impeachment on the campaign trail, even if they voted for it. They prefer kitchen table issues, especially to win over Trump supporters. But for those Democrats who do talk about impeachment, they see a role for the “McConnell as foil” message.

“Impeachment is just another proof point,” Russell said. “It shows that he’s an unrelenting partisan.”

Downsides to strategy

Republicans — and even some Democrats  — question whether focusing on McConnell will be effective in 2020.

For starters, building up a boogeyman takes time. Pelosi became speaker after the 2006 election, but it took two cycles and passage of a sweeping health insurance overhaul with only Democratic votes for the GOP’s call for voters to “fire Pelosi” to flip control in 2010.

It’s also unclear how well-known legislative leaders are in specific districts.

“McConnell is more universally despised, but not universally known,” said the Democratic strategist, contrasting the majority leader to Trump. “Question is: Can you make him a known enough boogeyman in these districts?”

The same Democrat expressed skepticism about using the message in a presidential election year.

“The truth of the matter is, no matter how hard you try, the top of the ticket will be what matters at the end of the day,” the strategist said.

On that point, at least, Republicans agree.

“Trump is the biggest thing in town — good or bad — and there’s just no getting around that. Like Obama was,” a GOP operative said. “Those things work when there’s not somebody else to fill the void.”

McConnell’s defenders argue that the boogeyman argument becomes even harder when Democrats are drawing attention to Trump by impeaching him.

“Say what you want about [McConnell], you’re impeaching the president,” said Josh Holmes, the Kentucky Republican’s former chief of staff and campaign manager. “In presidential elections, pick a name out of the phone book and campaign against it because none of it’s going to matter.”

Another Democratic strategist questioned why Democrats would even bother telling voters that their legislation has not become law.

“Rather than explaining, ‘I got HR 1 done but McConnell won’t sign it,’ just say you passed it,” the strategist said.

The same Democrat feared that bringing up McConnell — who’s associated with the GOP defense of the president — would only remind voters about impeachment, which Democrats in Trump districts are not eager to publicize.

“The last thing these guys and women want to do, especially in districts that Trump carried, is get people running to their corners,” the strategist said. “And going after the guy who people are going to view, first and foremost, as the guy who got Donald Trump off, I’m not sure is the right thing to do right now.”

“Maybe that changes,” the strategist added.

But regardless of whether it works, the boogeyman strategy isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Republicans have moved away from using Pelosi to casting “the squad” and liberal presidential candidates as villains.

In other words, both sides do it.

“We’re not a terribly creative bunch,” joked the GOP operative.