By Sam Youngman
WASHINGTON — For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it all comes back to the schoolhouse.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, McConnell referred to grades and marks and class presidents. And he made clear he knows that he is facing one of the biggest tests of his political career back home in Kentucky.
With Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes waiting in the general election and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin mounting a primary challenge, McConnell will either hand down the same lesson he has in elections past or he will get schooled.
“I think I just need to do my job,” McConnell said Friday. “I have two jobs. I have the job the people of Kentucky gave me, and I have another job that my colleagues gave me. And I try to do each of those jobs as best I can, and I’ll get a report card next year. And I’m hoping to get a passing grade.”
That looks to be a tougher challenge than in elections past for the five-term senator, caught in a pincer move between Grimes and Bevin and up against approval numbers that generally signal retirement is around the corner.
Objective polling has been sparse in the race so far, but the trend is that McConnell is either tied, trailing or narrowly winning over Grimes, a relative newcomer to politics at 34 years old. Bevin seems to be having trouble finding a spark, but the McConnell campaign has worked hard to extinguish those efforts.
The ongoing shutdown battle has been emblematic of McConnell’s woes: Try to strike a compromise and be accused of selling out Republican principles by Tea Party Republicans; dig in against President Barack Obama and be a symbol of a broken Washington that Grimes is eager to run against.
McConnell described the daily balancing act between Majority Leader Harry Reid and lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as “an interesting leadership challenge.”
“Imagine you’ve been chosen by some mysterious process to be the leader of a bunch of class president types,” McConnell said. “A lot of big egos and sharp elbows. On any given day they probably think they can do my job better than me. I don’t expect to be able to sort of skate through without any criticism.
“The more responsibility you accept, the more you set yourself up for critique.”
The critiques have been plentiful, but it’s his leadership position that McConnell is hanging his hat on, hoping Kentuckians will ultimately decide they prefer the juice that comes with Senate leadership instead of sending a freshman senator to Washington.
Motioning to a portrait of Alben Barkley over his shoulder, McConnell notes that the Kentuckian who served as Vice President under Harry Truman and Senate majority leader is the only other Kentuckian to hold the position he does now.
“I believe that I can make a very strong argument that that’s to the advantage of Kentucky,” McConnell said. “We’ve only had two party leaders from Kentucky in our history. Alben Barkley… and myself. And it gives Kentucky an advantage.”
With a red tie and faint red stripes in his pin-stripe suit, McConnell wears his Republican roots (or his allegiance to the University of Louisville Cardinals) proudly.
After then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, McConnell’s chosen successor to Sen. Jim Bunning, was defeated by Sen. Rand Paul in a primary upset that shocked Washington, McConnell appeared to look upon a state Republican Party he had built as one he no longer recognized.
Ever the survivor, McConnell adapted, moved quickly to embrace Paul, even hiring the junior senator’s campaign manager Jesse Benton to run his own campaign. But McConnell was loathe to add any kindling to the fire that looks to be dividing the Republican Party both nationally and in Kentucky.
Instead, McConnell is happy to note his role in turning what was once a solidly Democratic state that last November voted 61 percent for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and voted for President George W. Bush twice after twice backing President Bill Clinton.
“I think what’s changed is Kentucky’s a lot redder than it used to be,” McConnell said with a near imperceptible chuckle. “I have tried to play a role over the years in trying to make Kentucky what I think it is today, which is a genuine competitive two-party state. And thanks to Barack Obama, a pretty red state in federal elections.”
McConnell doesn’t waste a lot of time weeping for Grayson, and he hasn’t wasted time solidifying his relationship with Paul — McConnell was effusive and unprompted in his praise of the junior senator.
“The bigger the party gets, the more competitive it gets,” McConnell said. “And I’d rather have a big party with competition and primaries than a little bitty party that doesn’t win much.”
Seemingly circling back to a question that started with Bevin and the current state of the GOP, McConnell said, almost as an aside, “after all, the only election that really counts is in November.”
And while his demeanor on Friday was focused and plain-spoken, his reputation as a scorch-the-Earth campaigner was evident in subtle movements.
From the way he shifted in his chair, never breaking eye contact, at the mention of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid throwing a fundraiser for Grimes — Senate tradition generally rules out leaders helping each other’s opponents — to the way his eyes narrowed when it was suggested Grimes had yet to weigh in on the launch of Obama’s health care law in Kentucky, McConnell clearly has no intention of going quietly.
“We know where she stands,” McConnell said. “And the voters of Kentucky will know where she stands before the election.”