McConnell easily brushes off McGrath, claims a seventh term in the US Senate

By Silas Walker, Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. (TNS)  — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brushed off a challenge by Democrat Amy McGrath Tuesday to win his seventh term as the rest of the country anxiously awaited the results of a contentious presidential election.

McConnell’s status as majority leader remains up in the air. It’s unclear which party will win a majority in the Senate after the COVID-19 pandemic changed voting patterns across the country and could potentially delay election results in several battleground states.

In what has been a tumultuous political year, the race between McGrath and McConnell appeared almost unalterable from the beginning. McConnell maintained a steady lead over McGrath in the polls through the impeachment of President Donald Trump, through the COVID-19 pandemic and the record unemployment that followed it, through a national reckoning on race, and through the loss of a liberal icon on the Supreme Court.

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McGrath, who out-raised McConnell with a record $90 million through Oct. 14, was unable to peel support away from McConnell, who has cemented himself as the most powerful Republican in a state that has steadily turned away from the Democratic Party.

McConnell, 78, benefited from overwhelming support for President Donald Trump in Kentucky, but much of his victory came from the campaign machine Kentucky’s senior senator has built over the past 36 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic touched every aspect of the campaign, from drastically limiting the candidates’ ability to interact directly with voters to changing the method most Kentuckians used to vote. By the time polls opened at 6 a.m. on Election Day, more than 45% of registered voters had already cast their ballots.

None of it changed McConnell’s core strategy.

McConnell has built his career by aggressively going after his opponents and his campaign pounced on comments McGrath, 45, made in her 2018 campaign for the U.S. House, using them to paint her as an extreme liberal who was out of touch with Kentucky. She was recorded saying she was “further left” than anyone in Kentucky in her house race.

On the campaign trail, McConnell played up the steep political divide between rural and urban areas of the country, often repeating that he was the only party leader in the House or the Senate that wasn’t from New York or California. He claimed his role in leadership helped Kentucky punch above its weight.

“I deal with this coastal snobbishness all the time,” McConnell said in Versailles Monday. “My job is to look out for middle America and, in particular, look out for Kentucky, my favorite state.”

With Trump’s popularity holding relatively steady in Kentucky, McConnell positioned himself as a key Trump ally in Washington, D.C., by reshaping the federal judiciary over the past four years and defending the president after he was impeached by the House of Representatives.

His push to reshape the federal courts, which began when he held up nominations as minority leader during the administration of former President Barack Obama, became a key argument in McConnell’s effectiveness and was capped off with the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett a little more than a week before Election Day.

McGrath, a former pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, argued that McConnell wasn’t using his clout to do enough for Kentucky and instead was only trying to further his political power.

She attempted to focus the race on the federal government’s patchwork response to the pandemic, particularly McConnell’s role in Congress’ inability to pass an additional COVID-19 relief package after many of the funds had dried up. While nearly 18,000 more Kentuckians were out of work in September compared to September 2019, Kentucky’s 5.6% unemployment rate was better than the national average.

Finger firmly planted in McConnell’s direction, McGrath used the lack of COVID-19 relief to criticize partisanship in Washington D.C., arguing that as leader of the Senate, McConnell has sullied the institution’s reputation and brought its ability to pass legislation to a screeching halt.

But McConnell had spent much of the summer touring the state and talking about the CARES Act, which pumped more than $1 billion into Kentucky to keep the economy afloat after restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. When McGrath criticized him for not working on additional relief after many of the popular provisions of the CARES Act expired, McConnell attempted to place the blame on Democrats in the House of Representatives.

In the only debate between the two candidates, McConnell tried to dismiss McGrath as trivial.
“I think her entire campaign is, ‘She’s a Marine, she’s a mom and I’ve been there too long,'” McConnell said. (The McGrath campaign later sold merchandise with the phrase.)

McGrath’s star had already dimmed by the time she launched her campaign in July of 2019.

She burst onto the scene two years earlier as one of the fundraising juggernauts of the Democratic effort to take back the House of Representatives in 2018, but fell short of unseating U.S. Rep. Andy Barr. Her reintroduction to voters last year faltered. After being painted as one of the most progressive candidates in Kentucky by Republicans in her House bid, McGrath’s moderate message jarred progressives, who appeared to offer tepid support through the rest of her campaign.

Amid restrictions that limited gatherings and discouraged anyone from bringing more than 50 people together in one place, the perception of McGrath’s flagging support was tough to combat, even with nearly unlimited financial resources.

At one of her socially distanced events Monday night, on a cold evening where the bluegrass band even played Jingle Bells, McGrath thanked the volunteers and hard-core supporters who backed her campaign.

“I want to tell you all thank you,” McGrath told supporters. “This campaign, we’ve made a difference no matter what. I am super proud of this campaign.”

(c)2020 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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