What Mitch McConnell's Early Political Days Say About The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's early political races provide clues on how he approaches politics, and how the Kentucky Republican ultimately ascended to the position of Senate Majority Leader.

What Mitch McConnell's Early Political Days Say About The Senate Majority Leader

What Mitch McConnell's Early Political Days Say About The Senate Majority Leader

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Mitch McConnell's early political races provide clues on how he approaches politics, and how the Kentucky Republican ultimately ascended to the position of Senate Majority Leader.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of the most powerful people in the country, but not much is known about his early years in politics. For the NPR podcast Embedded, Kelly McEvers and her team spent months reporting on the Kentucky Republican. Her story today is about three of McConnell's earliest political victories, which tell us a lot about how he keeps his grasp on power.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The way Mitch McConnell tells it, he was not one of the cool kids growing up. He wore an I like Ike button in his fifth-grade school picture. When he was 14, he sat in front of a TV and watched both political conventions in full. And despite being, as he puts it, quite shy. In his junior year of high school, McConnell decided to run for student council president.


MITCH MCCONNELL: (Reading) To win the election, I needed to run a better campaign.

MCEVERS: It's a story he tells in his book, "The Long Game." This is from the audio version.


MCCONNELL: (Reading) I began to seek the endorsements of the popular kids, like Janet Boyd, a well-known cheerleader.

JANET BOYD: Mitch had his own agenda.

MCEVERS: This is Janet Boyd, the former well-known cheerleader.

BOYD: Because he's just that smart. He had a plan. I wish I had had a plan (laughter). Yes.


MCCONNELL: (Reading) I designed a pamphlet entitled "We Want McConnell For President" and listed the names of the popular students whose endorsements I'd secured.

MCEVERS: And he stuffed people's lockers with the pamphlets. The plan worked and the unlikely candidate won. Cut to 1977 and McConnell is running for his first-ever public office - county judge executive in Louisville, Ky., which, at the time, was a very blue state. McConnell, of course, is a Republican, so to win, he would again need the endorsements from the popular kids. The unions at that time represented tens of thousands of votes, and they supported McConnell's opponent, a Democrat, an incumbent county judge executive. But at one point, he allowed non-union workers to do a big county construction job.

RANDY MCQUEEN: A Republican's not going to come to organized labor and ask for support.

MCEVERS: But once he saw an opening, that's exactly what McConnell did, says Randy McQueen, who back then was a member of the Tobacco Workers Union. One labor leader said McConnell found him on his bowling night to try to get his endorsement. And McQueen says he showed up at the annual AFL-CIO awards dinner for people who had done community service.

MCQUEEN: It was a nice affair. People got all dressed up. He was right there with us. You'd have thought he was Samuel Gompers' cousin.

MCEVERS: In order to get the labor endorsement, McConnell had to sit for an interview with Randy McQueen.

MCQUEEN: Of course, one of the questions that I was assigned to ask him was, what's your position on collective bargaining for public employees? And he said, I support it. I support it wholeheartedly.

MCEVERS: I asked Kentucky journalist Al Cross, who has covered McConnell for decades, about this.

Do you think he was himself a union supporter?

AL CROSS: I doubt that was any real deep-held belief. The general lesson is that when you're climbing the greasy pole, you grab for anything. For him, it says that the priority is winning.

MCEVERS: In the end, McConnell got the labor endorsement, and he won the race for county judge executive by about 11,000 votes. But then when McQueen and others went back to talk to him about collective bargaining...

MCQUEEN: He said, well, you all misunderstood me. I said if the state would pass a collective bargaining bill for public employees, I would support it. Well, sure, you would. I mean, if it becomes the law, you have to. That was his position.

MCEVERS: In other words, that thing McQueen says McConnell promised he would do before the election was not going to happen.

MCQUEEN: I felt - what's the word? I felt crapped (ph) on, lied to. You know, I had dinner with him one night at a labor function. We sat at the same table and chatted just like old buddies. You know, he was right there with us.

MCEVERS: One political biography of McConnell says that pandering to the unions was, quote, "one of the few things in his public career to which he now openly admits being ashamed." McConnell told us, quote, "I was not pandering. I worked hard to get their support so I could defeat an incumbent they did not like." By 1984, Mitch McConnell was ready to make a run for the U.S. Senate. But this was a statewide race and getting endorsements alone wasn't going to do the trick. It was going to take a whole new style of campaigning, one that would come to define McConnell for the next 30-plus years.

Did you think he could - did you - did you think he could win? I mean...



MULLINS GRISSOM: I wasn't - now, let me put it this way. I was not packing my bags to go up to Washington.

MCEVERS: This is Janet Mullins Grissom, McConnell's 1984 campaign manager. And at the time, she says she had her work cut out for her.

MULLINS GRISSOM: In August of 1984, we were 40 points down. It's a little hard to get lower than that.

MCEVERS: McConnell was running against sitting Senator Dee Huddleston, a well-liked Democrat, a former sports radio announcer and an incumbent in a 2-to-1 Democratic state. Almost every day, McConnell would tell Grissom we need to find something on Dee Huddleston. We need a silver bullet. McConnell knew Huddleston had missed some votes in the Senate, so he asked Grissom to see if he had been earning money for appearances on the same days he was missing votes. Nothing illegal - it just wouldn't look good.

MULLINS GRISSOM: Mitch just kept after me. He's like, you just need to check. We just need to check.

MCEVERS: So Grissom stayed late one night.

MULLINS GRISSOM: Just to get Mitch off my back.

MCEVERS: She compared the Congressional Record with Huddleston's financial reports and found that Huddleston had given paid speeches in Puerto Rico on days he missed votes.

MULLINS GRISSOM: I'm like, oh, my God, it's the silver bullet. I mean, I remember calling Mitch at 2 o'clock in the morning going, you were right. We finally got him on something. So the next step was to bring in Roger Ailes.

MCEVERS: Yes, that Roger Ailes, creator and longtime head of Fox News, who was forced out after allegations of sexual harassment and who died in 2017. Back in the '80s, Ailes was a media strategist. In his book, McConnell writes about a suggestion he made to Ailes.


MCCONNELL: (Reading) I think we should do some positive TV ads, I suggested at a meeting. Sure, we could do that, Ailes said. Do you want to look nice? Or do you want to take out your opponent and win this thing? I want to do what it takes, I said. I want to win this thing.

MCEVERS: So the morning after Grissom found the dirt on Huddleston, she took it to McConnell and Ailes.

MULLINS GRISSOM: Roger, who was already portly at that point in time, was smoking a pipe. And so we're sitting in the office, and he's just billowing smoke. And Roger just kind of leans back in his chair almost to the point, you know, when a big guy leans back in a chair and you think he's probably going to end up on the floor. And he's like, dogs. I see dogs. I see hound dogs.

MCEVERS: The story goes that Ailes had recently seen a dog food ad and thought, what if instead of food, a dog is searching for Dee Huddleston? After a few days, this ad was on TVs across Kentucky.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My job was to find Dee Huddleston and get him back to work. Huddleston was missing big votes on Social Security.

MCEVERS: A man in a floppy hat is being dragged across America by bloodhounds looking for Dee Huddleston.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Huddleston was skipping votes but making an extra $50,000 giving speeches. I just missed him.

CROSS: He'd been behind by 40 points. Nobody thought Dee Huddleston was going to lose.

MCEVERS: Kentucky journalist Al Cross again.

CROSS: But he and Roger Ailes knew that one of the best tools he can use to bring somebody down is to get the voters to laugh at them. And people started laughing at Dee Huddleston.

MCEVERS: Again, the plan worked. McConnell won that Senate seat, a seat he has now held for 35 years, by just 5,000 votes. And when he runs for that seat again in 2020, by now, he's the clear favorite.


SHAPIRO: That's Kelly McEvers, host of NPR's podcast Embedded.

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