I’ve long believed we can learn a lot about politicians by how they conduct their campaigns. Candidates who are honest and above board before the election tend to be honest and above board after the votes are tallied. Those who choose to be dishonest and sleazy during the race are often less than forthright once in office.
And if this adage is true, we’re learning some unsettling things about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
For months, McConnell has made no real effort to hide his anxiety about his re-election. Despite his power and leadership role, and despite representing a “red” state, McConnell is not at all popular in the Bluegrass State. He’s sitting on an $8.6 million campaign war chest, which he’s already been forced to tap into – McConnell was the first incumbent to launch television ads in this cycle, 20 months before Election Day.
Is the panic justified? Probably – new results from Public Policy Polling shows McConnell with a 36% approval rating from his own constituents. Though his party affiliation is enough to lift him above likely Democratic challengers, PPP found his advantage over Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes at only four points, 45% to 41%.
The scope of McConnell’s anxiety is still coming into focus. Mother Jones’ David Corn has obtained another secret recording and published this report this morning.
On February 2, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, opened up his 2014 reelection campaign headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and in front of several dozen supporters vowed to “point out” the weaknesses of any opponent fielded by the Democrats. “They want to fight? We’re ready,” he declared. McConnell was serious: Later that day, he was huddling with aides in a private meeting to discuss how to attack his possible Democratic foes, including actor/activist Ashley Judd, who was then contemplating challenging the minority leader.
During this strategy session – a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones – McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views.
Even by contemporary GOP standards, some of the planned lines of attack were unusually ugly.
For example, during their strategy session, one McConnell aide argued that Judd is “emotionally unbalanced,” pointing to her “suicidal tendencies.”
Judd wrote in her autobiography about her struggles with depression, including having considered suicide as a sixth-grader.
But what kind of campaign looks at that as a legitimate area for a political attack?
On religion, Judd had described herself this way: “I still choose the God of my understanding as the God of my childhood. I have to expand my God concept from time to time, and you know particularly I enjoy native faith practices, and have a very nature-based God concept. I’d like to think I’m like St. Francis in that way. Brother Donkey, Sister Bird.”
Apparently, Team McConnell found this hilarious. Corn reported:
Laughter erupted again, with one guy in the meeting exclaiming, “Brother Donkey, Sister Bird!” The group didn’t seem to realize that Judd was referring to well-known stories about St. Francis, who once preached a sermon to birds—”my little sisters”—and who referred to his own body as the “Brother Donkey.” (In her book, Judd identifies herself as a Christian and often refers to church and prayer.)
With his comrades laughing about Judd’s reference to donkeys and birds, the chief presenter remarked, “That’s my favorite line so far. Absolute favorite one so far.”
Obviously, with Judd no longer considering the race, the specific lines of attack are a moot point. There’s no point in a senator attacking the personal life of a movie star just for the sake of doing so.
But the fact that this is where McConnell and his team were prepared to go doesn’t speak highly of the Senate Minority Leader’s values.
Postscript: The Republican senator hasn’t commented on the substance of David Corn’s report, but McConnell’s campaign wants an FBI investigation to determine how Corn obtained the recording. McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton accused “the Left” of “Watergate-style tactics,” and believes “a criminal investigation” is warranted.