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McConnell’s legacy in Kentucky faces national test in governor’s race

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/17/2023 Paul Kane
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seen in 2021 in Washington. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seen in 2021 in Washington.

Far from fading into the twilight, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s presence looms as large as ever in Kentucky politics.

On Tuesday, Republican voters there resoundingly backed his former legal counsel, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, to be their gubernatorial nominee in the fall. To succeed Cameron, Republicans nominated another former McConnell counsel, Russell Coleman, for attorney general. The coveted spot of agriculture commissioner went to the chairman of McConnell’s 2020 reelection campaign.

And the incumbent secretary of state, Michael Adams, who was a “McConnell Scholar” at the University of Louisville, easily fended off a right-wing challenge from an election-denying supporter of former president Donald Trump.

“Seems like McConnell’s political lineage is pretty healthy,” Scott Jennings, a veteran McConnell adviser based in Kentucky, said after the results came in Tuesday.

Love him or hate him — and there’s very little in between — the 81-year-old McConnell continues to spread his influence at home in Kentucky, where his prowess is comparable to his old nemesis, the late Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D), in his home state of Nevada.

In Nevada, one more victory for the ‘Reid machine’ over ‘Team Mitch’

McConnell remains unpopular, at home and nationally, as is the modern fate of congressional leaders, but it never particularly fazes someone who has faced just one reelection campaign that concluded within a single-digit margin in his last five reelection victories.

But his future is now more closely watched, having missed several weeks of action in the Senate after a fall in early March led to a concussion and broken rib. Each time Kentucky’s voters check off their ballot boxes serves as a chance to size up the potential heirs to McConnell’s seat and whether his standing at home has slipped, particularly in the last few years as Trump has blamed the GOP leader for not supporting his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

McConnell’s Senate term runs through 2026, at which point he would have to consider running for a six-year term that would end when he’s 90 years old.

What Tuesday’s results showed is that, much like Reid in Nevada, McConnell’s influence will last for years after he leaves the political limelight.

His biggest Kentucky focus is the governor’s race, where Cameron is in what is shaping up to be a high-profile contest between two younger politicians with national ambition.

Cameron, 37, the first Black Republican nominee for Kentucky governor, came up through the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, served as an intern in McConnell’s Senate office in 2010 and returned to McConnell’s staff full-time as counsel after finishing law school at Louisville.

He returned home in 2017 to begin his race for state attorney general, which he won convincingly in 2019 the same day that Gov. Andy Beshear (D) narrowly defeated the GOP incumbent — the third gubernatorial election of the last four won by the Beshear family.

McConnell and Steve Beshear, the current governor’s father, squared off in the 1996 Senate race, ending with a thumping by McConnell. But rather than ending his career in statewide politics — as has happened with every other Democrat felled by McConnell — Steve Beshear rebuilt himself and claimed blowout wins for governor in 2007 and 2011 in the sharply conservative state.

He and McConnell jousted each other year in and year out at the state’s political Royal Rumble-esque event, the annual Fancy Farm Picnic political shout-fest in the southwest corner of the state. And this fall — 27 years after their first meeting — the two elder statesmen of Bluegrass State politics square off through their surrogates in a fight that McConnell very much wants to win to stamp out the Democrats.

“This is an important opportunity to finish the job in Kentucky. The governor is just about the last Democrat left,” he said in a brief interview Wednesday off the Senate floor.

Andy Beshear, 45, remains one of the most popular governors in the nation and might be a slight favorite for winning reelection. Another victory would make him a national figure heading into 2028 and beyond, having won in such a deep-red state.

When he entered Kentucky politics, Cameron was cast by many McConnell supporters as the heir apparent to take over his seat. Instead, Cameron’s star has risen so quickly that his supporters now conjure scenarios in which he bypasses the Senate and, if he wins this fall, positions himself to run for president as the first Black Republican governor in the post-Reconstruction era.

“Daniel is a part of the future of this party,” Jennings said, describing him as part of “the next generation” of GOP aspirants to national office.

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Cameron carved outs his own identity beyond McConnell protege during his term as attorney general, in controversial fashion.

His office declined to press charges against the police officers in Louisville who, while executing a no-knock warrant seeking her boyfriend, shot and killed Breonna Taylor. One officer faced local charges, for firing into another apartment.

The case received national attention and sparked protests, along with liberal activists and Hollywood celebrities calling on Cameron to charge the officers for shooting Taylor. Conservatives, however, saw Cameron as withstanding deep criticism from political enemies.

“They tend to reward these people who survive these onslaughts,” Jennings said, comparing the conservative response to rallying around Trump. “You have a shield, a force field, around you.”

All of which meant that Cameron’s main opponent in the gubernatorial primary, former Trump ambassador Kelly Craft, made a mistake when she ran ads trying to call him an “insider” and showing an image of Cameron and McConnell together.

Trump had already endorsed Cameron, who spoke at the 2020 nominating convention, and almost every figure in Kentucky’s GOP circles traces their roots to McConnell in some fashion — including Craft.

The wife of a coal executive, her family had been major political donors to his past campaigns, and McConnell testified at both of her confirmation hearings to be ambassador to Canada and then to the United Nations.

The entire statewide GOP slate this fall has ties to the Senate leader, part of his decades-long effort to turn the state red and build allies to win key races.

“Party-building is a lost art among contemporary politicians,” Josh Holmes, a longtime political adviser based in Washington, said Wednesday.

Reid arrived in Washington in the early 1980s as the only Democrat in Nevada’s congressional delegation. When McConnell first ran for Senate in 1984, just two of Kentucky’s nine members of Congress were Republican.

Today, seven of eight Kentuckians in Congress are Republican, while five of the six Nevadans in the Capitol are Democrats.

Democrats invested heavily in 2014 and 2020 trying to defeat McConnell, with both races ending in blowouts. And Holmes learned the hard way how ingrained Reid’s operation is, even after his death in 2021. Holmes’s firm advised Republican Adam Laxalt in 2022, when he lost to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

McConnell seemed to lose his way in 2010, when his acolyte, Trey Grayson, got soundly defeated by Sen. Rand Paul (R) in the GOP primary. Paul’s libertarian style seemed to be on the march in the state, and McConnell courted his support ahead of the 2014 election for both the primary and general elections.

But Paul’s style never lent itself to developing other grass-roots politicians, and instead McConnell continued to build the state’s political farm team.

Whenever McConnell steps aside, a half-dozen or more Republicans with ties to him could run to replace him in a manner that would leave him feeling comfortable.

For now, however, he just wants to defeat the Beshear family one last time.

“We’ve got a real chance of picking that governor’s seat up this fall,” he said Wednesday.


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