Mitch McConnell’s long and winding road in Kentucky

Meredith Shiner
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Whitesburg, Kentucky — On a tight, winding mountain road in Eastern Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s campaign bus inched slowly uphill, bearing forward at a constant speed past signs warning of falling rock and explosions from adjacent coal mines as bolder, faster drivers zoomed by.

The Pine Mountain Grill here was the fourth stop on Day One of a two-day, 10-town McConnell coal bus tour last week. To chase the big blue “Team Mitch” bus from its previous destination for 45 miles on a narrow lane of US 119 — hugging the ground when near the mountainside and worrying about turns when edging the cliff — is to understand McConnell’s approach to what is shaping up to be one of the toughest races of the Republican leader’s 30-year Senate career.

The road to victory is narrow, steep and dangerously close to explosive territory. And it runs through the coal-industry-dominant eastern half of Kentucky and counties like Knott, where McConnell stopped on his tour and where a Republican Senate candidate has not won an electrion since Reconstruction.

More than anything, though, the path to victory in a state where both McConnell and President Obama have approval ratings below 40 percent appears to involve taking a startlingly negative, partisan tone. Tough-talking television and radio ads have begun to flood the airwaves, an assault that will only grow more intense as summer turns to fall in a race whose costs are expected to top $100 million. McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, speak as if Kentucky is in the middle of a cultural Civil War. So do their surrogates, such as former president Bill Clinton, who stumped for Grimes over the course of a day in two counties last week.

“Who do they think we are? Do they think we’re not very intelligent down here?,” McConnell asked the crowd in Corbin, repeating the questions in a stump speech throughout the day.

“Do they think we don’t know that the EPA building is named after Bill Clinton? Do they think we don’t know that Bill Clinton widely applauded these new regulations that are killing the coal industry?” McConnell jabbed at Grimes’ surrogate, one of the last nationally successful Southern Democrats.

“Do they think we’re not smart enough to figure this out? Who do they think we are? These people are against everything we stand for. They’re against our way of life, and we’re going to stop ‘em!” McConnell declared.

If McConnell’s staged incredulousness sounded familiar, it’s because less than 24 hours earlier, Clinton had accused Republicans of treating voters of the Bluegrass state as if they were stupid.

“The first thing I thought was, that man thinks that Kentucky has stopped teaching arithmetic,” Clinton told donors in Lexington. “Because the White House changes every four years, and it’ll change in two years, and this is a six-year job. He’s actually hoping that everybody will check their brain at the door and forget you’re hiring somebody to do something for the next six years that he has not done for the last 30.“ Clinton repeated the identical thought in Hazard later that day.

Aides to McConnell believe the key to his reelection is the president’s unpopularity among Kentucky voters. With a disapproval rating of 55 percent, Obama is winning Kentucky’s race to the political bottom over McConnell, who is viewed unfavorably by a comparatively meager 43 percent of voters. The McConnell camp believes that Obama’s weaknesses so far outweigh their candidate’s that focusing on the president is the way to go (and that diverting attention from issues that could plague the minority leader couldn’t hurt, either). 

McConnell’s verbal excoriation of the president is not uncommon in Washington, D.C. Yet his plea to voters here, delivered before crowds of 75 to 160 a stop, was even more impassioned—and infused with populist fervor. His campaign within the bounds of the Beltway is to be the next Senate majority leader. And though his seniority still is at the heart of his reelection message to voters at home — he made every bus stop with House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, after whom many event spaces in Eastern Kentucky are named, including the Hazard venue for the Grimes/Clinton rally last week — it can’t be all that he presents. McConnell must prove that after decades in Washington, he isn’t so much of a political insider that he’s lost touch with voters at home.

Meanwhile, the Grimes campaign has its own needle to thread. Like Kentucky’s junior senator, Republican Rand Paul, whose father was a longtime Congressman, she cannot claim total outsider status. She is a political insider in her own right, given her dad’s longtime work with the Democratic Party. Political sources from both parties and unaffiliated with either campaign say that Grimes and McConnell are more alike than they’d like to admit: They have looked at the political landscape and found talking points with which they think they can attack each other, and have little intention of diving deep into policy issues or substantive questions of governance.

Grimes is focused on taking out a senator whom she paints as an obstructionist. Yet if Obama’s numbers stay where they are or continue to sink, the risk in that strategy is that voters could believe even more than they do now that Obama is worth blocking — and that McConnell, who once stated that his No. 1 goal was to defeat the president, is the guy to do it.

The burden still seems to be on McConnell to prove that he is invested enough in Kentucky and not just in becoming Senate majority leader in 2015. In each town he stopped in, there were supporters who seemed intimidated by his stature and approach. But there were many more who offered a window onto how McConnell got here in the first place, the kind of people who have been faithful to him throughout his long tenure in the state. In Corbin, Nancy Jones, a 40-year resident of Williamsburg who runs a fish hatchery, told Yahoo News about the side of McConnell most reporters don’t get to see.

“He remembers your name. He remembers what you did. He remembers everything about you,” Jones said. She told the story of McConnell’s first Senate race in 1984 and how he visited Cumberland College, where her now 51-year old son was student body president. She says the senator still asks about him when she sees him at events like the one she attended at Whayne Supply, one of the oldest and largest Caterpillar equipment dealerships in the country.

When speaking to supporters, McConnell often reaches for their hands, or rests his hand on their forearm, making strong eye contact and making sure that those who come to him with concerns can link up with his constituent field staffers, who travel with him to each event.

Perhaps the most striking exchange came at the Harlan County stop, in a giant warehouse for the Carroll Electric Company. In the back of the event space sat a man in a wheelchair accompanied by his wife and speech therapist, and wrapped in a University of Kentucky Wildcats blanket, which created room on his lap for a “Team Mitch” poster.

Allen Johnson was a coal miner for 23 years. He is now grappling with the late stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and yet he insisted that his wife of 41 years, Marlene, bring him to this warehouse so he could meet McConnell.

On his way out, the longtime politician took a moment to thank Johnson for being there. Johnson gave McConnell a note that read, “I’m in this wheelchair because of ALS, but that hasn’t stopped me from campaigning for you. I’ve contacted over 1,000 people on Facebook asking them to vote for you, and I’m not done campaigning for you. My question is: Will you campaign for me on Capitol Hill by asking for more research dollars for ALS?”

Of course, no one knows exactly what McConnell might fight for if he wins this race and if Republicans take back the Senate, since the party has invested much more effort in opposing policy initiatives than trying to work with Democrats to craft them. McConnell’s brief interviews with reporters during his tour rarely strayed from coal talking points.

But that hasn’t stopped some Republicans, like Allen Johnson, from fighting for a McConnell win no matter what.

After McConnell left the Harlan County event, Yahoo News talked to the Johnsons. Marlene held a laminated alphabet card and spelled out, letter by letter, the words that her husband was mouthing, in order to pass on the “message he’d like to send to a reporter.”

“Make him majority leader in the Senate,” Johnson said. The message took about 10 minutes for the couple to spell out, but could not have been clearer.