Why Mitch McConnell really matters

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By Tory Newmyer,

from FORTUNE Magazine,

Tantalizingly close to achieving his career ambition of seizing control of the Senate, the Kentucky Republican is also as close as he’s been during five terms in the chamber to being sent packing. The Senate minority leader faces battles on both flanks: on the right, with a primary challenge from multimillionaire investor Matt Bevin; on the left, with a general-election cage match that’s already neck and jowl. (As of presstime, Democratic frontrunner Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s 35-year-old secretary of state, was slightly ahead in the polls.) Handicappers expect that the candidates and outside groups will spend more than $100 million on the race, much of it coming from outside the state.

McConnell, for his part, declines to discuss the current election in any detail. “I tend not to advertise campaign strategy,” he tells Fortune. “I’d rather surprise my opponents than inform them in advance.”

If McConnell can fend off his conservative challenger on May 20, guide four of his fellow incumbents through a thicket of Tea Party primary challenges, and survive the November election — a difficult hat trick — he is likely to emerge as the one Washington Republican who can return the Grand Old Party to the grand old political center and put an end to Tea Party extremism.

“Anybody around town who’d like to have a more pro-business, pro-free enterprise government, the only thing they can do about that between now and 2016 is change the Senate,” McConnell says. “Because the one thing virtually every Republican has in common from Maine to Texas is that we are essentially the party of the private sector.”

To hear the McConnell camp tell it, victory would give the senator the chance to forge a new Republican vision — to finally offer those much-promised legislative proposals for economic growth and reform that the party has so far been unwilling or unable to unite around. Defeat, on the other hand, would extend the muddle of the GOP’s internal squabbling and diminish its presidential hopes in 2016 and beyond.

McConnell is not naturally groomed for human contact makes this battle for the soul of the Republican Party all the harder to win. He is better suited for cloakroom fencing than campaign glad-handing and soaring rhetoric. And he’s awkward on the stump, … Throw in a couple of Kentucky polls showing that some 60% of McConnell’s own constituents disapprove of the job he’s doing, and the senator looks yet more vulnerable.

For the past five years the Senate’s top Republican has been against the wall more than he’s been on top of it. In November 2008, McConnell barely eked out a win.

Outside the corridors of Capitol Hill, McConnell can seem an uneasy campaigner. Inside them, McConnell is a seasoned political warrior, a wily tactician — the Sun Tzu of the Senate.

As McConnell hustled to hold his squad together after the 2008 rout, a bigger force was gathering to tear Republicans apart. For all his tactical talent, McConnell was blind-sided by the Tea Party revolution that remade the political landscape in Kentucky and across America.

And it took the shock of an insurgent’s come-from-nowhere victory in the Bluegrass State’s 2010 Republican Senate primary to deliver the message.

Heading into those elections, McConnell helped engineer the retirement of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning and cleared the way for Trey Grayson, an affable, Harvard-educated secretary of state. But Grayson drew a challenge from a newcomer, a country ophthalmologist named Rand Paul.

Yet the force that brought Paul to Washington is the same one that McConnell must quash if he is to bring the Grand Old Party back to its business-cozy, noninflammatory comfort zone.

It won’t be easy. Paul and the new crop of hardliners have pushed the party’s center of gravity away from the middle. So far, the burden has been on McConnell to follow. Kentucky’s senior senator endorsed his junior colleague’s bid to legalize industrial hemp (seriously), joined his filibuster protesting the administration’s drone policy, and even embraced Ron and Rand Paul’s “Audit the Fed” campaign.

But if McConnell makes it through his electoral gauntlet this year (along with the six-seat gain the GOP needs to retake the chamber), he’s made it clear he’ll seek to govern by consensus. With a razor-thin majority, he wouldn’t have much of a choice.

We’re not interested in having a dysfunctional majority beholden to a group that wants to blame Republicans for everything wrong in the world.”

Tea Party supporters, naturally, scoff at such a dismissive characterization. Some of these conservative rebels, they say, have brought not recklessness but rather new energy and policy innovation to a party that has long since lost the will (or courage) to champion fresh ideas. Utah’s Mike Lee, for example, is tackling tax reform, and Florida’s Marco Rubio is pushing far-reaching changes to social safety-net programs. Their confrontation with the ruling class of the party, moreover, is as much generational as it is ideological.

By that stark analysis, it is McConnell and his cohort, not the Tea Party, who are on the wrong side of the trend line — and possibly the wrong side of history. After a half-century in Kentucky politics, McConnell has just months now to prove that isn’t true.

As to the question of when he and his party will develop a broad and substantive legislative platform to tackle the critical challenges America faces, McConnell has a ready answer as well: “If we’re in the majority,” he says, “we’ll be sitting down, intensely, a year from now on the very issue you’ve raised.”

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