11 Things You Should Know About Mitch McConnell
Policy + Politics

11 Things You Should Know About Mitch McConnell

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) hinted that he and other Tea Party conservatives might try to block Mitch McConnell from claiming the Senate Majority Leader mantle after the GOP swept to a majority in last week’s elections — as if anyone or anything could stand in the way of a determined McConnell eyeing his dream job. 

The 72-year-old McConnell cruised to victory last year over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in Kentucky’s GOP primary. Last Tuesday, he scored an impressive 56 percent to 40 percent victory to win a sixth term, beating out Alison Lundergan Grimes, a well-financed Democratic challenger backed by Hillary and Bill Clinton. On Thursday, MccCnnell was elected majority leader by acclamation of the Republican caucus.

Related: McConnell Vows a New Senate That Will Get Things Done   

Even before Senate Republicans began gathering to elect McConnell the Majority Leader of the 114th Congress, his campaign last Friday released a new video entitled “Victory.” The final montage had the title: “Senator Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader.” 

McConnell has vowed to seek common ground with Obama. The outcome of this new experiment in divided government will have important repercussions -- from how much businesses and individuals pay in taxes to immigration policy changes to the price of war against ISIS.

McConnell signaled during a press conference in Louisville that — while the GOP has a clear agenda on economic reform, energy, trade and health care — he intends to seek compromise on key issues and make the Senate “work again.” He vowed Congress would not shut down the government or default on the national debt in budget disputes.

“When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything,” McConnell told reporters. “Maybe there are things we can agree on to make progress for the country.”

Related: The Senate Baton Passes to McConnell and the GOP

As McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) prepare to assume control of Congress, here are 11 key things to know about the new Majority Leader:

1: Few in Washington have a better handle on the Senate’s inner workings, on the political dynamics of cutting issues, on how to count votes, and on how to negotiate agreements. McConnell’s specialty has been hammering out last-minute deals on complex budget disputes, as he did in 2011, as Senate Minority Leader, in negotiating a deal with Vice President Joe Biden on a budget package that averted a U.S. default on its debt.

2: McConnell is generally taciturn and stone-faced with the media. But after winning reelection last week, he gave a downright expansive news conference at the University of Louisville. He warned that if President Obama used executive fiat to impose his immigration policies, it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull” in the response he could expect from Republicans. 

Related: Obama, McConnell, Boehner: Wise Up for America 

3: McConnell grew up in Alabama and overcame polio as a young boy. At age 13, he moved with his family to Kentucky, where he did undergraduate work at the University of Louisville, earned a law degree from the University of Kentucky, and began practicing politics. In 1993, he married Elaine Chao, the former Labor Secretary under President George W. Bush. He has three daughters from a previous marriage.

4: Although a staunch conservative, McConnell launched his political career as an intern for a liberal Republican senator, John Sherman Cooper. After law school, he became chief legislative assistant to Kentucky Republican Sen. Marlow Cook and worked in the Justice Department under President Gerald R. Ford.

5: In 1977, McConnell ran for Jefferson County judge – a chief executive and administrative post in Louisville. According to a book by Alec MacGillis of The New Republic, McConnell won by “running mostly to the left of the Democratic incumbent,” supporting collective bargaining rights for public employees. He was reelected in 1980 before campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

6: McConnell beat out incumbent Democratic Sen. Walter (Dee) Huddleston in 1984, in part with “a clever ad showing bloodhounds sniffing for Huddleston in vacation locales where Huddleston had collected fees for speeches while the Senate was in session,” according to the Almanac of American Politics.  

Related: McConnell Bests Boehner as GOP Negotiator-in-Chief   

7: In 2003, after winning his fourth six-year term, McConnell rose to the Senate’s No. 2 spot, majority whip. In 2007, after the GOP lost control of the Senate, he took his caucus’s top job.

8: While on the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell funneled federal assistance to Kentucky and looked out for the interests of coal producers and tobacco growers. (His vow to block EPA rules on curbing carbon emissions by utilities and industry was a mainstay of his reelection campaign against Grimes.) He became a leading opponent of campaign finance reform, especially efforts to curb political action committees and so-called soft money.

9: After Obama took office in 2009, McConnell pursued a course of action that earned him the moniker “Dr. No.” “The methodical McConnell held virtually all his GOP troops in line as he resolutely opposed all of Obama’s top priorities — from the $787 billion economic stimulus package to the sweeping health reform measure to legislation overhauling the rules governing Wall Street,” Kirk Victor wrote in The Fiscal Times.

Related: How a GOP Senate Would Challenge Obama on Foreign Policy   

10: Always more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, he has had a tenuous relationship with conservatives and groups allied with the Tea Party. After Republicans blew opportunities to win back Senate control because they had flawed conservative candidates, McConnell pledged this year to foil Tea Party-backed candidates, according to a CNN report.

“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told The New York Times in March. But the consummate strategist stunned people in September 2012 by selecting Jesse Benton, a top political adviser to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), to manage his reelection campaign.

11: McConnell best enjoys bourbon in a Manhattan: “Drop a couple of cherries on top of it, make sure there’s ice there, and it’s a terrific drink around Christmastime, which I frequently offer to my guests,” he told Yahoo News last year.

This article was updated at 10:50 a.m. ET on Thursday, Nov. 13.

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