Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is facing a double-barreled challenge from Democrats and tea-party backed Republicans as he seeks re-election in 2014. And while the outcome of that race could be a referendum on his performance as the Senate's top Republican, this showdown may not actually be so Washington-centric.
Back home in Kentucky, tobacco growers are facing a possible threat from a new European Union rule that could cost the local industry millions within the next decade. McConnell is busy working behind the scenes to protect the state’s cash crop — and reminding growers what he can do for them if he remains in Senate leadership.
Kentucky tobacco farmers are reeling after the EU voted in October to phase in a ban on flavored tobacco products. Burley, one form of tobacco grown mostly in Kentucky, requires added ingredients during the manufacturing process, and as a result could be included in the ban. Kentucky farmers produce 148 million pounds of burley tobacco on average every year, and almost half of that — 43 percent — is exported to Europe. Eight states grow burley, but 70 percent of the crop is produced in Kentucky. Tennessee and North Carolina rank second and third, respectively.
At about $2 per pound, the loss of nearly half the market could deal a devastating blow to growers in Kentucky who produce burley.
As the Senate's top Republican, the sheer muscle of McConnell’s position could be his best argument to convince this bloc of Kentucky voters and donors to keep him in office. The new tobacco rules come amid ongoing negotiations over a major free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. McConnell is in a strong position — if he chooses — to ensure that the final deal protects Kentucky growers.
“His staff is very much aware of all of these things,“ said Roger Quarles, a former president of Kentucky's Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association and the International Tobacco Growers' Association. “They’re very concerned about it.” The EU is still finalizing how it will enforce and define the new rules — a source with knowledge of the talks in the EU told Yahoo News that the burley issue could be raised as early as Thursday — but the threat has Kentucky tobacco growers looking to McConnell to help save their livelihood.
During his time in public office, McConnell has cultivated a cozy relationship with tobacco growers and the tobacco industry, which has filled his campaign coffers for years.
McConnell leads other senators in donations from the tobacco industry, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Competitive Politics. During McConnell’s re-election campaign in 2008, he received $130,400 from tobacco interests, more money than any other lawmaker received from the industry. Since 1990, McConnell has reaped more than $475,000 from the industry, FEC records show.
“Sen. McConnell is well loved in the tobacco industry,” Quarles told Yahoo News. “McConnell has always been an adamant and ardent supporter of our tobacco growers in Kentucky. There’s none better. He’s never wavered in his support here. As far as someone else coming in and having things less favorable for us or more favorable, I can’t imagine they would do anything more than his support has been so far.”
With McConnell’s election only a year away, the potential crisis for a local industry provides an opportunity to remind the growers what a high-ranking, seasoned lawmaker can do for his constituents.
McConnell is in for a tough campaign in 2014. He currently faces a primary challenge from Republican Matt Bevin, a Kentucky businessman who has backing from some tea party groups. Should McConnell defeat Bevin in the primary next spring, he will likely face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state of Kentucky and a well-regarded campaigner expected to receive considerable help from the national party.
The reality is that if McConnell loses to either Bevin or Grimes, his successor would be a junior senator with little influence in the nation’s access-obsessed capital city. As McConnell tells burley growers — and other industry groups in Kentucky who could benefit from his Washington influence — any newcomer to the Senate won’t arrive in Washington with his kind of clout. In May, McConnell co-signed a letter with three other senators in tobacco-growing states to EU Ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida, urging the body to reconsider moving forward with the ban.
“[W]e have serious concerns about the [Tobacco Products Directive] and its impact on transatlantic trade relations,” McConnell wrote, along with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. “[A]s the Senate considers the potential U.S.-E.U. free trade agreement, the TPD calls into question the EU’s ability to deliver on regulatory commitments to the United States that it will have to make under a comprehensive U.S.-EU trade agreement.”
The message of the letter was clear: A European ban on burley could threaten the trade agreement process. Since the Senate will have to approve the agreement, McConnell is in a position to make those negotiations difficult.
But in order to play, McConnell needs to be in the game after 2014. And his campaign is not shy about telling tobacco growers what he can do for them as the trade talks progress, multiple growers in the state told Yahoo News.
“They remind everybody that whatever influence that is in the leader’s office is carried by Sen. McConnell at the moment,” Quarles said. “Obviously if someone else comes in there, they’re not going to be in the leader’s office. It takes years and years to reach that level of leadership. If it changes, it will be years again for that to come about.”
Indeed, since the four lawmakers sent the letter, McConnell has been working to blunt the impact on growers in his home state, a McConnell spokesman told Yahoo News.
“Sen. McConnell is in regular contact directly with the U.S. Trade Representative, both proactively (such as on the EU issue), and when that office regularly solicits his opinion as the Republican Leader,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told Yahoo News in an email.
In a statement to Yahoo News, a spokeswoman for Grimes said the Democratic candidate would seek export opportunities for Kentucky-based businesses and criticized McConnell for voting against a farm bill when it came up for a vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes is committed to preserving our rich agricultural tradition and will ensure that Kentucky's farmers have the support, stability and certainty they deserve," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton told Yahoo News. "It starts with expanding Kentucky's export opportunities to help our farmers sell American farm products to the world."
A spokeswoman from Bevin's campaign declined to comment.
McConnell's leadership role, however, is a mixed bag for his re-election effort. On one hand, it comes with a big stick in Washington for the people of Kentucky. But as a lead Republican negotiator for must-pass legislation, such as the one passed last month that re-opened the government and raised the federal debt limit, it also forces him into positions where he can't always hold a pure line in the name of conservative purity.
“You would almost have to be someone that is completely detracting to think that [McConnell's] influence does not mean something on a national level,” said Kentucky State Rep. Jonathan Shell, a conservative Republican who supports McConnell but who is sympathetic to tea party views. “Regardless of whether or not we agreed or disagreed with the outcome of the government shutdown and his negotiations, I think that we all should understand and know that Sen. McConnell was the one in that conversation, and you do not get in that conversation without having that clout that is necessary to have the impact we’re going to need to move farmers forward.”
Democrats with ties to the Kentucky tobacco-farming industry concede that McConnell’s years in the Senate strengthen his hand in 2014.
“Even though we’re in different parties, I think that Sen. McConnell has always been a strong advocate for the Kentucky farmer in general and certainly for the tobacco farmer,” said Kentucky State Rep. Wilson Stone, a co-chair of the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee. “Leadership is always connected to influence whether it’s in the Kentucky General Assembly or in Washington or the Chamber of Commerce here at home. So the higher the leadership position, the more influence you can have on behalf of your constituency.
“Buts there’s going to be a lot of issues in this upcoming race,” he added. “The ag issues might not be [Grimes’] best issues, but certainly she’s a Kentuckian through and through and certainly has an appreciation for rural Kentucky and for agriculture.”
Burley farmers, however, are hopeful that the final language and enforcement of the EU ban won’t be as rigid as first thought. It’s possible that the final ruling could exclude burley, especially if moving forward with the strict ban means not spoiling a pending trade deal with the United States
The tobacco crop, of course, won’t be the only issue driving the election for the Kentucky Senate seat. But with money and jobs possibly at stake in McConnell’s back yard — and his capacity to keep the growers’ export protected — it may be impossible to ignore.