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The Myths the Media Spins About Mitch McConnell's Political Motives

Andrew Burton/Getty Images News

Scarcely had Mitch McConnell ceased stating his support on the Senate floor for a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling than the Beltway press was already singing his praises as a veteran legislator willing to deal with the Democrats to save the country at the last instant even if hurts him back home. From the Washington Post’s online Fix column:

McConnell faces a conservative primary challenger next year and has been feeling heat from conservative groups. Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman, has been pressing McConnell to step up his opposition to President Obama’s health-care law. Meanwhile, the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group considering backing Bevin, blasted McConnell for his talks with [Harry] Reid, a favorite punching bag of the political right.

All of which seemed to suggest that McConnell’s deal-making days might be over, or at least on hiatus. But they aren’t. And through a back and forth in which both sides were reluctant to cede ground, McConnell and Reid found a way….This much is clear: When Washington has had a seemingly intractable fiscal problem to solve, McConnell has been there time and again.

It is certainly true that the last-minute fiscal deals of the Bush-Obama era have tended to feature McConnell in a prominent role. However, it is simply naïve to suggest that McConnell is willing to serve in roles as he did this week purely for the sake of the republic, even if it risks sacrificing his own political prospects. If there is one thing that McConnell’s long career in Washington has demonstrated, it is that he has a keen understanding of what it takes for him to get reelected back home and rise up the ranks in Washington, despite a lack of obviously strong affection from either Kentucky voters or colleagues on the Hill. And he understands that in this instance, the politically shrewder move was to negotiate with Harry Reid at the last minute, even after having helped let things get to that point by failing to use his sway to quash the gambit led by a self-aggrandizing rookie, Ted Cruz, before it got as far as it did.

Why is that? Two related reasons. One is that the tougher challenge facing McConnell next year is in the general election. Yes, he faces a primary fight with Bevin, a wealthy businessman who made a strong debut at Fancy Farm, the state’s big annual political picnic to-do in August. But Bevin has some obvious vulnerabilities that McConnell has already been blasting away at on the airwaves, and remains far behind in state polls. More formidable will be McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes has been raising a lot of money, is neck and neck with McConnell in the polls and, most importantly, has despite her very young age shown surprising verve in taking on the most powerful politician in her state. No, it’s not easy to run for federal office as a Democrat in Kentucky in the age of Barack Obama, but one should not overstate Kentucky’s redness: Democrats still have enough life there at the state level to allow the state to have one of the most successful Obamacare rollouts in the country, and McConnell has again and again posted fairly mortal election results even against weak Democratic opponents.

This leads to the second reason why it was in McConnell’s interest to cut this week’s deal with Reid. McConnell has notably failed to forge a deep emotional connection with Kentucky voters over his nearly three decades representing the state. But his seniority in Washington has increasingly allowed him to make the argument that Kentucky would be foolish to replace with him someone else without his sway. This kind of claim was easier to make in the days of earmarks galore, but as we saw this week, money still has a way of finding its way to Kentucky even if it’s not technically considered an earmark. More than that, it should not be underestimated how much it matters to voters in a smallish state that is used to being looked down on to know that its guy is near the top of the Washington pecking order.

Is this an overly cynical way of looking at McConnell’s rising to the occasion this week? Well, whom better to ask than…the man himself? Here’s what he told the National Review’s Robert Costa Thursday morning:

Costa: A lot of reporters think your decisions are driven by political considerations in your home state, especially your primary versus Matt Bevin and a potential general-election campaign versus Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. How are those factors shaping your strategy?

McConnell: Oh, that’s the Mother Jones thesis. I have nothing to say about my primary opponent. And this week, it’s pretty obvious about whether that’s driving my decisions. As for [Lundergan Grimes], the whole rationale for her candidacy is that I’m part of the dysfunction in Washington, so she’s probably been pretty unhappy over the past 24 hours. I’ve demonstrated, once again, that when the Congress is in gridlock and the country is at risk, I’m the guy who steps forward and tries to get us out of the ditch. So it’s been a bad 24 hours for her, and she’s going to need to find a new rationale.

McConnell has a knack for being surprisingly candid about his political motives. And he was again here: his bigger reelection worry is Grimes, and the way for him to beat her is to convince Kentucky voters that, fresh-faced and charming as she may be, they don’t want to replace the person who is “the guy who steps forward.” So enough with the talk of Mitch McConnell’s selflessness, Beltway scribes. When a politician himself is declaring that a move is in his self-interest, it’s time to take him at his word.