Monday, November 10, 2014

Sen. Mitch McConnell Re-elected: A Washington Insider Sustained by the Establishment

The human brain is likely hard-wired to assume that tomorrow will be like today. This coping mechanism effectively narrows the window of our cognitive and perspectival range. The status quo not only endures; it is dominant, whereas reform must push hard to see the light of day. In politics, establishment interests, made wealthy in the status quo, bet their contributions on the political insiders—the establishment politicians who embrace the status quo. As a result, an electorate is manipulated and mislead by branding ads to the extent that it cannot be said that the real will of the people is done. The ensuing public policy is also not of that will; rather, legislation protects the vested interests in return for their contributions. A republic in the grip of this self-sustaining cycle can be said to suffer from a kind of hardening of the arteries. As times change, such a ship of state becomes increasingly unmoored from its people. Eventually, the ship sinks, after the pressure of incongruity has reached an unsustainable level. I contend that the 2014 U.S. Senate election in Kentucky between the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and his Democratic challenger, Alison Grimes, illustrates this political illness in action.

In a Louisville Courier-Journal poll conducted January 30 through February 4, 2014, only 27 percent of registered Kentucky voters viewed Mitch McConnell favorably, while fifty percent had an unfavorable opinion of the minority leader.[1]  President Obama’s approval rating came in 2 percentage points above that of McConnell’s.  With a 3 percent margin of error, the poll gave McConnell 42 percent to Grimes’ 46 percent—meaning that were the election held then and the actual turnout was not skewed, Grimes would be the next U.S. Senator from Kentucky.

With the U.S. House and the president deadlocked through the midterm election in November, legislative achievement cannot explain how McConnell’s 27 percent turned into the 56.2 percent who voted for him. Similarly, Pat Roberts of Kansas had had low favorability ratings only to come up with 53.3 percent of the vote. Both senators were Washington insiders who had strayed from their respective home states. Yet in the end, this is what saved them.

According to the New York Times, McConnell’s campaign benefitted from $23 million in spending from independent groups including the National Rifle Association, the National Association of Realtors, and the National Federation of Independent Business. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, registered as a social welfare organization, spent $7.6 million on attack ads against Grimes.[2] That organization ran more political ads in Kentucky than any other outside group, which means that Grimes could not counter the critical ads sufficiently. In short, McConnell’s strategy was at least in part to bring in out-of-state money to get a chunk of Grimes’ favorable rating.  Although positive correlation is not causation, the widening spread between the two candidates through the summer and fall, with McConnell on top, coincided with the onslaught of outside-group spending on attack ads against Grimes. 

It is possible that the people of Kentucky sent their incumbent senator back to Washington in spite his low favorability rating. In other words, Kentucky’s electorate may have been manipulated and mislead, deprived in effect of making the choice.

The implications in terms of public policy are just as bad. Contributors to the “social welfare” organization are not publically listed, so they have cover should anyone accuse the incoming majority leader of paying them back with favors. Whereas Grimes as a freshman senator would have much less power with which to make the favors happen, McConnell’s position as majority leader attracted the contributions like a tall beacon on a clear night. The establishment money, in other words, backed up the Washington insider, effectively protecting the status quo and thwarting real reform.

[1] James Hohmann, “2014 Election Poll: Mitch McConnell Trails Alison Lundergan Grimes by 4,” Politico, February 6, 2014.
[2] The Editorial Board, “Dark Money Helped Win the Senate,” The New York Times, November 9, 2014.