How Mitch McConnell Won the Day

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from TIME Magazine,

The GOP takes a victory lap.

There was a lot of talk about a crisis in the Republican Party after it failed to dislodge Barack Obama in 2012. The GOP might win hand-drawn districts and bright red states, but as a national force, it was unpopular among young people and nonwhite voters and riven by warfare between Tea Party and Establishment.

But a funny thing happened on the road to ruin. On Nov. 4, Republicans turned a favorable political season into a wave of victories that not only gave them control of the Senate and fortified their hold on the House but also padded their substantial edge among governors and tightened their grip on state legislatures. From the red state of Kansas, where a ballyhooed Republican crack-up failed to materialize, to true-blue Maryland, which elected just its third GOP governor since the 1950s, voters delivered what could only be read as a rebuke to the notion of Democratic inevitability. Record spending by Democrats in the North Carolina Senate race could not save incumbent Kay Hagan, nor could the massed artillery of Democratic interest groups put a dent in Wisconsin’s re-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker. Come January, Speaker of the House John Boehner (if re-elected by his conference) will lead the largest Republican majority since 1947, while across the Capitol, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell will assume the title he has spent a career pursuing: Senate majority leader.

It is McConnell, more than any other Republican victor, who is the owlish face of the broad off-year comeback. An unglamorous pragmatist, he takes an approach to governing that skimps on hope and change in favor of nuts and bolts. Or, shall we say, winning and losing. In the ashes of 2012, McConnell shrugged off calls to retool the GOP agenda and instead focused on the specifics of the next battle. What he saw was that 2014 would be an unusually favorable field on which to fight. In these polarized days, Republicans dominate not just in red states and red districts but also in red years–the midterm cycles when only about 90 million hardcore voters, about a fourth of the total electorate, show up at the polls. And even for a midterm election, this one was stacked with juicy targets. Few Republican incumbents appeared vulnerable, while Democrats were defending seats in red and purple states from Montana to North Carolina.

What kind of mandate does that create? McConnell’s approach left that question hanging. In an interview with TIME on a sunny November Monday in Hazard, Ky., while cruising to his own sixth term, the soon-to-be Senate leader sketched rather circumspect ambitions. “Exactly which bill comes up first will be determined after discussing that with my colleagues and with the Speaker,” he told TIME. “Some examples of things that we’re very likely to be voting on–approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing the medical-device tax, trying to restore the 40-hour workweek, trying to get rid of the individual mandate. These are the kinds of things that I believe there is a bipartisan majority in the Senate to approve.” He said he hopes to find common ground with Obama on tax reform and trade agreements–issues that, not coincidentally, deeply divide the Democrats.

Given its empty negativity, the senate campaign of 2014 is not likely to make much of a mark in the history books. On the other hand, it would make a pretty good case study for a book on advanced political tactics.

Another piece of the plan fell into place when the Kochs chose not to wade into the primary war, clearing the way for McConnell and his Establishment allies. In past elections, their group Americans for Prosperity has been a champion of Tea Party candidates. Now, as AFP president Tim Phillips put it, they asked themselves, “What’s the most important thing? Is the most important thing having a more pure 45th Republican, or is the most important thing, next year, not having a hard-left majority leader?”

McConnell cared more about winning than about flyspeck ideological purity, and thus he set the tone of the 2014 campaign.

Once on board, the chosen candidates were put through arduous training in the perils of a modern campaign. On one trip to Washington last year for a series of policy briefings and fundraising events, each candidate was met at the airport by a campaign “tracker”–the trade term for a hyperactive, in-your-face camera jockey dispatched by an opponent to record a politician’s every word. Even highly experienced candidates can screw up under a tracker’s constant gaze: former Virginia governor and Senator George Allen famously dug his own grave in 2006 by calling his tracker “macaca.”

Later, NRSC staff revealed that the trackers were GOP plants. “We’d like to show you the video of you and how you reacted,” the staff told the candidates, according to NRSC finance vice chairman Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. “It was just a good experience,” he added, “because most of them had never had the experience of having someone with a camera three inches from their face following them around.”

The work paid off in a campaign virtually free of GOP gaffes–a welcome change from 2010 and 2012, when Republican candidates mused disastrously on topics ranging from witchcraft to rape to the threat of Shari’a law in Dearborn, Mich.

The biggest surprises on election night were at the gubernatorial level, where state issues loom large and some pundits were predicting that the GOP would lose a couple of governor’s offices. Instead, Republicans gained three.

So there was nothing grand about it–no flights of oratory, few tears, no faux Greek columns on a stage. The 2014 election was something simpler–and arguably more small-d democratic. It was the grumbling expression of an unhappy public, as heard and harnessed by a set of politicians who tune their ears to that low frequency.

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