McConnell cares most about the state Attorney General race, and things are looking up

Published 5:59 pm Monday, October 28, 2019


Guest columnist

For Mitch McConnell, things in Kentucky are looking up. In Washington, not so much.

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The races are close, but the Senate majority leader’s state appears likelier than not to elect Republicans to the state’s top offices Nov. 5. McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin, former rivals, have learned how to get along and stay out of each other’s way, and a Bevin victory should increase McConnell’s chances of winning re-election in 2020.

But the state race McConnell probably cares most about is attorney general, where his former aide, Louisville lawyer-lobbyist Daniel Cameron, seems to have the edge on Greg Stumbo, the former state House speaker whose investigative efforts as attorney general cost Republican Ernie Fletcher re-election as governor in 2007.

McConnell had talked Fletcher into running, which should have been a warning to Republicans; if you have to be talked into running for governor, you probably don’t need to be governor. As the warmhearted Fletcher learned painfully, it’s a job where you often have to be cold and tough.
 Cameron probably didn’t need much persuasion from his old boss, having been presented the opportunity – at 33 years old, with the minimum legal experience required – to become the chief law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth, setting him up for a historic run for senator in 2026 or governor in 2027 during a second term as attorney general.

And history awaits sooner; if Cameron wins Nov. 5, he will be the first African American elected to statewide office in Kentucky in his own right. McConnell would surely take that as a feather in his cap; civil rights have been a lodestar for him even as he has followed his party’s rightward turn.

McConnell’s involvement in the Republican primary surely pushed out state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, who had almost beaten Andy Beshear for attorney general in 2015. State Sen. Wil Schroder of Wilder in Campbell County jumped into the primary, but Cameron raised $400,000 to Schroder’s $184,000 and got 55.3 percent of the vote.

McConnell has made money rain on his protégé, who has outraised Stumbo ($721,000 to $518,000) and benefited from advertising by national groups. Some of his money is going into a new ad that uses some of the same anti-immigrant scare tactics that have helped Bevin catch up to Beshear in the governor’s race.

Cameron is also using an endorsement by President Trump, probably arranged by McConnell, who has tied himself closely to Trump – not just because he is leader of the president’s party in the Senate, but because Trump is popular in Kentucky and he is not. He remained the nation’s most unpopular senator in the quarter ended Sept. 30, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.

McConnell’s life is further complicated by Trump’s likely impeachment, and trial in the Senate. When that became all but certain, McConnell said in a fundraising video, “The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader.” But as Trump has become more unhinged, recklessly letting Turkey go after Kurds in Syria, that majority and its leader have not been with him.

McConnell called the move “a grave mistake,” but Trump probably doesn’t care what McConnell thinks about Syria, which gives the senator room to say it – and take the opportunity to mark some distance between himself and Trump in case the president proves to be a political liability.

Trump does care about impeachment, and as he has become more at risk, McConnell hasn’t been completely in harness with him. The leader co-sponsored a resolution objecting to House Democrats’ secret, grand-jury-type hearings – which Republicans like to talk about instead of the president’s withholding of congressional appropriations from Ukraine for a political purpose – but after he put more distance between himself and Trump.

The president said Oct. 3 that McConnell had read a rough transcript of Trump’s extortionate conversation with the Ukraine president and quoted McConnell as saying, “That was the  most innocent phone call that I’ve read.”

When CBS’s Nancy Cordes ran that past him on Tuesday, McConnell said, “We’ve not had any conversations on that subject.”

Cordes asked, “So he was lying about that?” McConnell said, “Heh, you’ll have to ask him. I don’t recall any conversations with the president about that phone call.”

In other words: “Mr. President, I’ll help you any way I legitimately can, but I won’t lie for you.”

Trump is still an asset for McConnell in Kentucky, but is becoming a liability for Republicans’ Senate majority. If the trend continues, they may conclude they’re better off without him. But he seems unlikely to quit, as Richard Nixon did; he’s not a party man. Are they willing to anger his base and cast public votes to oust him? McConnell’s management of this mess will be his biggest test ever.


Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.