Mitch Part 1: 'Win This Thing' Mitch McConnell has been described as "opaque," "drab," and even "dull." He is one of the least popular - and most polarizing - politicians in the country. So how did he win eight consecutive elections? And what does it tell us about how he operates?
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Mitch Part 1: 'Win This Thing'

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Mitch Part 1: 'Win This Thing'

Mitch Part 1: 'Win This Thing'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers.

ERIC MENNEL, HOST:

And I'm Eric Mennel.

MCEVERS: And this is EMBEDDED.

MENNEL: Alec MacGillis is a journalist. He works for ProPublica. And he usually has a nose for really, really compelling stories, which is why, when talking with him about a book he wrote a few years back, I had to ask.

What were people's reactions when you told them you were working on this?

ALEC MACGILLIS: (Laughter) Concern.

MENNEL: (Laughter).

MACGILLIS: Puzzlement. Really, you're doing - wow, you're doing a book on Mitch McConnell.

MCEVERS: Mitch McConnell - if you know anything about him, it is probably one of these three things. One, he's the majority leader of the United States Senate, which is a really powerful job. Two, he blocked President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court. And three, he is not the most dynamic guy in politics.

MENNEL: Is that overstating that?

MACGILLIS: No, not at all.

MENNEL: OK (laughter).

MACGILLIS: He's almost notorious in Washington for his opaqueness, his drabness, his wan demeanor. When Simon & Schuster approached me about doing the book, I kind of questioned their belief that there was a market for the book (laughter).

MENNEL: Oh, really?

MACGILLIS: Until this day, I - when I get my royalty statements, I continue to question whether there's a market for the book.

MENNEL: A joke, perhaps, but what Alec was saying actually came across more like a warning because we were already, in fact, in the middle of reporting a podcast series about Mitch McConnell.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sometimes I would sit back when I'm (unintelligible), and I would imagine him in a powdered white wig and a ruffled shirt like a late 18th century politician.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Warm and engaging and outgoing - none of those terms describe Mitch McConnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Some folks still don't think I spend enough time with Congress. Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell, they ask. Really?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?

MENNEL: Ultimately, Alec landed in the same place we did.

MACGILLIS: I finally came to decide to do the book, to take it on, because I actually saw him as incredibly important to understanding what's happened to politics in America today. There was really no one better to get at through than Mitch McConnell.

MCEVERS: Depending on who you ask in this very divided country, Mitch McConnell is either responsible for the downfall of our democracy or has been one of the most effective Senate majority leaders in history.

MENNEL: He has said blocking Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, was, quote, "the most consequential decision" he has ever made in his entire public career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN GRUBER: I think this is basically Mitch McConnell giving the middle finger to representative democracy.

MCEVERS: He helped President Trump put two justices on the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And who is the hero of the conservative movement today for holding open the Supreme Court seat? Mitch McConnell. Now a Republican president...

MENNEL: He's rewriting the rules of the Senate, keeping what many say are key issues from even coming up for a vote. And he's reshaping the federal courts in ways that will affect the country for generations.

MCEVERS: Mitch McConnell has won his Senate seat six times, even though, like many leaders in Congress, he is not very popular in his home state. Right now, he's actually one of the least popular senators in the country. But still, he and the people around him are very confident he'll win again in 2020.

MENNEL: And he has done all of this - kept winning and become one of the most powerful people in the country - despite his almost aggressively blank demeanor.

MCEVERS: And that, says Alec MacGillis, is actually essential to understanding him.

MACGILLIS: It's been one of the most striking things about Mitch McConnell - that he has succeeded so much in American politics, despite being so utterly unsuited to it from the standpoint of his personality. He recognized it in himself - knew that he just was completely lacking in that natural political charisma and that he was going to have to find other ways to win.

MENNEL: And what were those other ways? To answer that, we are going to go back and look at a few of Mitch McConnell's earliest races - races few people thought he would win.

MCEVERS: And we're going to see how he did it because if you hate him and you want to beat him in 2020, or if you love him and you want him to stay in power, knowing where Mitch McConnell came from tells you a lot about how he operates and about his effect on the country.

MENNEL: That's our show today - one of the most improbable, powerful people in America and the levers he pulled that got him there.

MCEVERS: After this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: 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 picture. He sat in front of the TV and watched both political conventions in full in 1956. He was 14 years old.

MENNEL: And despite being, as he puts it, quite shy, McConnell decided during his junior year of high school to run for student council president. It's a story he tells in his book, "The Long Game."

MCEVERS: And spoiler alert - this is not the story of an idealistic teenager with big plans to make the school a better place. Young Mitch McConnell was a pragmatist.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME")

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

MENNEL: Yes, this is Mitch McConnell narrating the audio version of his memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME")

MCCONNELL: (Reading) I began to seek the endorsements of the popular kids like Janet Boyd, a well-known cheerleader, and Pete Dudgeon, an all-city football player. I was prepared to ask for their vote using the only tool in my arsenal - the one thing teenagers most desire - flattery.

JANET BOYD: Mitch had his own agenda.

MENNEL: Janet Boyd, the well-known cheerleader, told us she appreciated the attention, and she eagerly gave McConnell her vote.

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

MENNEL: And McConnell did not stop there.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME")

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: Most politicians have these stories - right? - about who they are and why they're the best guy for the job. And this one tells us a lot about how Mitch McConnell sees himself - that he's the guy who will outwork and outsmart his opponent, who'll do things most people wouldn't do to win.

MENNEL: And what is high school if not a training ground for local politics? In 1977, at age 35, McConnell ran for his first public office, and he was once again looking for votes from the popular kids. Only this time, the popular kids were Democrats.

LARRY FORGY: I'd say he was a decisive underdog.

MCEVERS: This is Larry Forgy. He raised money for McConnell in that election.

FORGY: I mean, nobody thought, oh, lord, this is the beginning of a Kennedy-like career that's going to take him a long way.

MCEVERS: The office McConnell was running for was called Jefferson County judge executive. It was sort of like being mayor but for the county that surrounds Louisville, Ky.

MENNEL: Back then, Kentucky was not the red state we know today. Like a lot of the South, it was dominated by Democrats. In fact, Forgy told me Republicans in Jefferson County were pretty much just happy to have a candidate.

FORGY: I mean, that's what kind of shape we'd got in down here at one time. We couldn't find anybody who wanted to run for these offices.

MCEVERS: So just like in high school, McConnell had a plan. And it might sound crazy, knowing who he is now, that the plan was don't be too partisan.

MENNEL: According to the local newspaper, McConnell told Republican groups around this time that the way to win in Kentucky was, quote, "have a good, strong candidate who isn't too strongly identified with the party" and to, quote, "take a non-partisan personal appeal to the voters."

MCEVERS: And by all accounts, Mitch McConnell, like much of the Republican Party back then, was more moderate than he is today. In the '60s, he voted for LBJ, not Barry Goldwater. And his idol was a pro-civil rights senator named John Sherman Cooper.

MENNEL: So play it down the middle. But also, like in high school, he needed to get endorsements. In his first race, he got a big one - the newspaper that didn't usually endorse Republicans, the Louisville Courier-Journal.

MCEVERS: It's time for a change, the endorsement read, because the incumbent, quote, "appears in the past two years to have gone stale on the job" - unquote. McConnell has, quote, "run a well-organized, well-financed and meticulously planned campaign."

KEITH RUNYON: I thought that he was a man of integrity. I think a lot of people here did.

MENNEL: Keith Runyon was on the editorial board at the time.

RUNYON: Instead of being out glad-handing and playing basketball and stuff like that, he would show up in a business suit. He would give a speech, and he would give you the impression that he was in control. And I think that was a breath of fresh air for us here.

MCEVERS: And it wasn't just the newspaper. McConnell also - maybe even more improbably - got the labor unions on his side.

MENNEL: In the past, the unions had supported McConnell's opponent, the current county judge executive, a Democrat named Todd Hollenbach. But then Hollenbach 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 that's exactly what McConnell did, says Randy McQueen (ph), who back then was a member of the Tobacco Workers Union.

MENNEL: One labor leader said McConnell came and found him on his bowling night. And, Randy says, he showed up at union events like an annual AFL-CIO dinner for people who'd 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: What McConnell wanted was the endorsement of this thing called the Central Labor Council. It's basically about 70 or so people from unions in and around Louisville. Randy was on the council's executive board, and it was his job to interview McConnell.

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.

MENNEL: Not something a Republican would typically support then or now. So the board voted to endorse McConnell and took the issue to the larger labor council for a final vote.

MCEVERS: The meeting was at the AFL-CIO Union Hall. And at first, Randy says, McConnell was not an easy sell.

MCQUEEN: You know, labor council had some older guys on there that were pretty rough, and they were diehard Democrats.

MENNEL: But then this one guy stood up.

MCQUEEN: Lean as hell.

MENNEL: An iron worker.

MCQUEEN: He always wore a short-sleeved shirt, and he was continually pulling the sleeves down 'cause his biceps were so damn big.

MCEVERS: His name was Johnny Bruce (ph). And Johnny said, if the executive board says we should support McConnell, we should support McConnell.

MENNEL: So the labor council voted to endorse McConnell. They actually told their members, split your tickets. Vote Democrat in every race except for this one.

AL CROSS: Back in those days, the endorsement of the greater Louisville Central Labor Council delivered tens of thousands of votes.

MCEVERS: This is Kentucky journalist Al Cross. He's covered McConnell for decades.

Do you think he was himself a union supporter?

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: And McConnell did win. He beat Todd Hollenbach for county judge executive by about 11,000 votes.

JOHNNY BRUCE: I let him sweet-talk me. I admit it. You know, I did.

MCEVERS: I reached out to Johnny Bruce, the guy from the meeting with the biceps. And he told me that not long after the election, he realized he'd made a mistake in supporting McConnell.

BRUCE: It wasn't even six months after he got into office. We had a couple important issues we wanted to talk to him about and couldn't get a meeting with him.

MCEVERS: And when it came time to talk about collective bargaining - here's Randy again.

MCQUEEN: And I remember this very clearly like it was yesterday. 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, it becomes the law. You have to. That's - that was his position.

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

MCQUEEN: I felt - what's the word? I felt cracked 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 like this was, quote, "one of the few things in his public career to which he now openly admits being ashamed."

MENNEL: 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." And he says the anecdote about the unions not being able to get a meeting is, quote, "not accurate."

MCEVERS: There was something else we heard from people who knew McConnell in those early years that we found pretty surprising - another issue where his actual position wasn't clear. And that was the issue of abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can assure you that we thought he was pro-choice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He was largely pro-choice early in his career.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The best elected official I have ever worked with on the pro-choice issues.

MCEVERS: But what confused us is that in newspaper coverage at the time, McConnell never mentioned this belief. In fact, while running Jefferson County, McConnell voted to support a bill that would restrict abortion, and he publicly endorsed the platform of Kentucky Right to Life. The one county commissioner who voted against the bill to restrict abortion was Sylvia Yagert (ph). So I called her up, and she said she honestly didn't know what McConnell believed on abortion.

SYLVIA YAGERT: Because he says very little. He watches very carefully what he says. Mitch was not in the habit of, you know, tapping me on the shoulder and saying, I want to tell you how I think about this. He walked through the tulips and did not step on any.

MENNEL: Walking through tulips without stepping on any - it was maybe the best description we heard of McConnell's time in Kentucky. What he believed wasn't the point. He got the popular kids on his side.

MCEVERS: When we asked McConnell about this, he told us, quote, "I have never, at any point, publicly or privately, been pro-choice."

YAGERT: I think the most encompassing thing that is important to understand about Mitch is that he is quite a different person than most of us in that the only thing that really was important to him at that time in his life was to get to the Senate.

MCEVERS: That's coming up after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We're back. In Mitch McConnell's early local races, the way he won was to get people who wouldn't normally vote for a Republican to vote for him. But all along, his main goal wasn't just to win these local races, it was to get to the U.S. Senate.

MENNEL: When he decided to run for the Senate in 1984, it was a much bigger and more complicated race. And endorsements alone were not 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.

MCEVERS: Did you think he could win? I mean...

JANET MULLINS GRISSOM: I did not.

MCEVERS: Oh.

GRISSOM: I wasn't...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

GRISSOM: Let me put it this way - I was not packing my bags to go up to Washington.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MENNEL: The guy McConnell was losing to by 40 points was named Dee Huddleston. He was a really well-liked Democrat and a former sports radio announcer. He was also a two-term incumbent in a 2-to-1 Democratic state.

MCEVERS: McConnell's team had tried going after Huddleston on the issues. They held a weekly press conference they called dope on Dee to attack his record on things like spending and taxes. But McConnell's pollster, Lance Tarrance, says they just couldn't get within 20 - sometimes even 30 points.

LANCE TARRANCE: That's when there was some panic in the campaign and, like, what are we going to do? You can see the vise was beginning to close in on us.

GRISSOM: We were all trying to find something that would change the dynamics of the race. And we're really not having a lot of luck.

MENNEL: Almost every day, McConnell would tell Janet, we need to find something on Dee Huddleston. We need a silver bullet.

MCEVERS: And for McConnell, that silver bullet was not going to come in the form of a rousing speech or a grand policy proposal. Instead, it was going to be an attack.

MENNEL: McConnell had a hunch. He knew Huddleston had missed some votes in the Senate, so McConnell asked Janet to compare those dates to Huddleston's financial disclosures to see if he'd been earning money on the side, getting paid for appearances on the same days he was missing votes.

MCEVERS: And it's not like this was illegal. It just wouldn't look good for Huddleston.

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

MCEVERS: So she stayed late one night.

GRISSOM: Just to get Mitch off my back.

MCEVERS: So Janet's in her office at McConnell headquarters with these two big stacks of paper - the Congressional Record and Huddleston's financial reports. And she finds that Huddleston had given speeches in Puerto Rico on days he missed votes.

ROGER AILES: 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've got him. We've finally got him on something. So the next step was to bring in Roger Ailes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Yeah, that Roger Ailes - the creator and longtime head of Fox News, the guy who many people say is responsible for how polarized the media is now - and who, we should say, was forced out of his job at Fox News after multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

MENNEL: Back in the '80s, Ailes was one of the country's top media strategist for conservatives. He made his name in part by making Richard Nixon more presentable on TV.

MCEVERS: And in his book, Mitch McConnell writes about a suggestion he made to Roger Ailes.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE LONG GAME")

MCCONNELL: (Reading) I think we should do some positive TV, as 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.

GRISSOM: So the morning after Janet found the dirt on Dee Huddleston, she took it to Ailes and McConnell. And Mitch is, like, yeah, yeah. You know, how can we make this into a campaign commercial? And Roger, who was already portly at that point in time and 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...

(LAUGHTER)

GRISSOM: And that's Roger. And there he is in his puff of smoke. And he's just - he's, like, dogs. I see dogs. I see hound dogs.

MENNEL: The story goes that Ailes had recently seen an ad for dog food where the dog is sort of running around all over the place sniffing out food. And he had this thought - what if, instead of food, the dog was searching for Dee Huddleston? It only took a few days, and then this is what started showing up on TVs across Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (As character) My job was to find Dee Huddleston and get him back to work. Huddleston was missing big votes on Social Security, the budget, defense - even agriculture. Huddleston was skipping votes but making an extra $50,000 giving speeches. I just missed him.

MENNEL: In the ad, a man in a floppy hat and a plaid shirt is being dragged across America by a pack of bloodhounds. They drag him through the woods, then across a beach. They drag him in front of the U.S. Capitol looking for Dee Huddleston.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I was close at Dee's $2,000 speech in Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Dee Huddleston. Thank you very much. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We can't find Dee. Maybe we ought to let him make speeches and switch to Mitch for senator.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

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

MCEVERS: That's 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.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Ailes is able to humanize people and also to refocus attention on a candidate's opponents in a way that it dehumanizes them.

MCEVERS: And that's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

FOLKENFLIK: The McConnell case is classic because he takes somebody who's not particularly warm, and he conferred on him the notion of a sense of humor. It gave McConnell humor by association.

MENNEL: Some people criticized the ad, called it misleading because, as one magazine reported, Dee Huddleston's attendance record was actually 94%.

MCEVERS: But it didn't matter. The ad was getting attention across the country. It would go on to become a classic in the attack ad genre. And at the time, McConnell's pollster, Lance Tarrance, saw the impact almost immediately.

MENNEL: They were moving up in the polls by as much as double digits.

TARRANCE: It really did the job. And suddenly, we get excited that we've got a race on our hands now.

CROSS: But the conventional wisdom was that Huddleston would still pull it out because McConnell just didn't - well, he had too much ground to make up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Good evening, and welcome to election '84. Tonight in our studio, we have two candidates for the office of United States senator - Democrat Walter D. Huddleston and Republican Mitch McConnell.

MENNEL: In their one debate, the two spent a surprising amount of time arguing about McConnell's negative campaigning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEE HUDDLESTON: He started more than two years ago with his negative, misleading and misrepresentation campaign against me and my record. He has continued that right up until this very minute.

MCEVERS: But McConnell was ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: I don't have any problems with Dee Huddleston. I like him. I think he's a nice fellow. What we've been talking about is his record. And by the way, I think it's doubly amusing for him to still be complaining about a negative campaign. If you've had your television sets on the last couple of weeks, all you've seen are outrageous negative campaigns against me.

HUDDLESTON: Well, I'm glad Mitch McConnell has brought this subject up again because it is indicative of the fallacious nature of his total campaign.

MENNEL: Mitch McConnell was such a believer in going negative he actually made a case for it during the debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: When it's close, when it's competitive, the two candidates are sort of like gladiators in the ring. And the public benefits from the two candidates getting into the ring, mixing it up and bringing out observations about the other candidate's record. And I think that's part of what makes the system work.

MCEVERS: In other words, get ready - this is how campaigns are going to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: From National Public Radio, this is an election '84 special report. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: By Election Day, McConnell was closer than ever in the polls, but he was still behind. When the polls closed, the big story was that Ronald Reagan was clearly on his way to a landslide victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: Now NPR is calling eight of those states for the president. Those states give the president a total of 91 electoral votes.

MCEVERS: He would go on to win 49 of 50 states.

MENNEL: This is exactly what McConnell's team had been hoping for. A big turnout for Reagan would mean more votes for McConnell.

MCEVERS: And that became the second big story of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And in Kentucky, an upset - Mitch McConnell, the Republican, beat the incumbent, Democrat Walter Huddleston. NPR's Nina Totenberg is following the Senate races and has this report.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Huddleston loss is a major blow to Democratic hopes for picking up seats in the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Let's take a rundown now of the other Senate races we've called, beginning with the great upset of the evening so far in Kentucky.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Liz (ph) and Ken (ph), it's been 16 years since Kentucky's had a Republican senator. And now Mitch McConnell has made history. Republicans here are calling this the most unexpected victory in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOTENBERG: He is described as an extremely aggressive candidate. Someone said to me, he comes up to you and says, will you support me? And you say, well, Dee Huddleston is my best friend. And he says, well, will you support me anyway? And then you say, I'm sorry. Dee Huddleston is married to my sister. And then he says, well, can you suggest someone else?

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: That night, Mitch McConnell was the only Republican to take a Democrat's seat in the Senate.

MENNEL: But it felt bigger than that. There was this sense that, oh, if this guy can peel away enough Democrats to vote for him in the South, perhaps others could, too. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: Lou (ph), does this mean that the South is now the Republican part of the country, the same way the mountain west is generally written off by the Democrats?

LOU, BYLINE: Linda, this may be the case. We're beginning to get real signs tonight that realignment's taking place. I'd say categorically, from what we've gotten this early, that the - certainly the old solid Democratic South is dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Let's see what Mitch McConnell has to say.

MCCONNELL: Let me thank all of you wonderful people for coming out here tonight.

(CHEERING)

MCCONNELL: After 16 long years in the wilderness, the two-party system is back in Kentucky.

MENNEL: Since we've been reporting this series, there's this number I keep coming back to, thinking about over and over again - 5,000. The 1984 election was a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan, but it wasn't for McConnell. It actually wound up being very, very close. He only won by about 5,000 votes.

MCEVERS: That's about one vote per precinct in Kentucky.

GRISSOM: I believed it then and believe it now.

MCEVERS: Again, McConnell's campaign manager, Janet Mullins Grissom.

GRISSOM: It's like he willed himself to get elected. He was singularly focused, and no one worked harder than the candidate himself.

MCEVERS: For Alec MacGillis, who wrote the book on McConnell, this very narrow win in 1984 is a real turning point for McConnell and for the country.

MACGILLIS: Prior to that, he had been quite a moderate Republican in a lot of ways. But he saw the Republican Party shifting to the right with Reagan. And now that he was representing the whole state, it was clear to him that he was going to have to shift quite a bit to the right. And he basically who - warned one of his friends that that was coming down the pike.

MENNEL: Oh, literally warned him.

MACGILLIS: Yes.

MCEVERS: That friend was Keith Runyon, who was part of the editorial board that endorsed McConnell for county judge executive in 1977. After McConnell was sworn in to the Senate, Runyon was visiting Washington, and the two had just had breakfast in the Senate dining room.

RUNYON: And as we were leaving, he said, Keith, I have to tell you; I don't think you all will ever endorse me for Senate. And I sort of quizzically looked at him because I thought, well, how on earth would he know that? He said, I'm going to have to move so far to the right to be reelected in this state that you will not be able to endorse that.

MCEVERS: And for Keith Runyon, who knew McConnell as a moderate, this was disappointing.

RUNYON: He was a - very much a progressive Republican when he was in Jefferson County. And I don't think he was lying to us. I think what we saw was what we got. What we didn't understand was that his views were flexible enough to go along with the current mood.

MCEVERS: Here's what McConnell told us about this exchange - quote, "I'm not surprised he was disappointed because he somehow expected me to be something I never was - a liberal."

MENNEL: Still, Al Cross says this turn to the right is key to understanding Mitch McConnell - that anticipating the direction things are going in the party and in the country, and then going that way himself - it's why McConnell keeps on winning.

CROSS: He has adapted to what has gone on in his party. And really, that is, I think, the ultimate secret of his success.

MENNEL: From the beginning, there was nothing about Mitch McConnell that made him an obvious candidate for the job he now has. He was never very charismatic, has never been overwhelmingly popular. But he has found ways to overcome that - by playing it down the middle of the road, telling people what they need to hear, through a mastery of the media - ads making him warmer and funnier than he normally is in public - and attacking his opponents.

MCEVERS: And, Alec MacGillis says, there is one other tactic Mitch McConnell used over the years to win - maybe his most important tactic.

MACGILLIS: The main way he found to win was to raise tons of money, to be the guy who had way more money than the other guy - and that he needed to make sure that you didn't stanch the flow of money to politics because that's how he was going to win.

MCEVERS: That's next week on EMBEDDED.

This episode was reported by Eric Mennel and me, and produced by Eric, with help from Tom Dreisbach and Chris Benderev. It was edited by Bret Bachman, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Hersher, Mark Memmott, Lisa Pollak and Deirdre Walsh. Our intern is Niella Andre (ph). Research was by Susie Cummings. Thank you so much, Susie. Fact-checking by Greta Pittenger. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans.

Big thanks to congressional correspondent Sue Davis and Washington editor Beth Donovan. Thanks, also, to Debbie Britton at KETV, Lisa Henry at the Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma, Nan Mosher and Glypie Grider with the McConnell-Chao Archives at the University of Louisville, Tom Owen and Delinda Stephens Buie at the U of L, Jason Flaherty at the University of Kentucky, Mike Taylor at WLEX and Eisha Neely of Cornell University.

And thanks to Joe Schiff (ph), Charlie Mussin (ph), Bill Bardenwerper (ph), Ron Pragliasco (ph), Nicole Hemmer (ph), Michelle Meria (ph), Bob Johnson (ph), Bob Garrett (ph), Jerry Abramson (ph), Charlie Cleffas (ph), Carolyn Ealy (ph), John Rabin (ph), Jessica Loving (ph), Delores Delahanti (ph), Raul Cunningham (ph), Mike Dalton (ph), Todd Hollenbach, Earl Hartledge (ph), Margie Montgomery (ph), Jay Bruce Miller (ph), Terrence McCoy (ph), Bobby Crabbe (ph), Dickie Lee (ph) and Ruth Happel (ph) of the Ironworkers Local number 70 in Louisville.

Alec MacGillis's book is called "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell." The biography we mentioned is called "Republican Leader" by John David Dyche. Mitch McConnell's memoir is called "The Long Game."

Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, and you can read his columns in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. Leave us a review. Hit us up on Twitter @NPREmbedded. And come back for more Mitch to hear about the one issue many people say matters most to him and to hear from the man himself. Thanks.

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