His campaign has sold T-shirts making light of drug use. His supporters built tombstones with his 2020 opponent’s name on one of them, and his campaign tweeted it out hours after the El Paso mass shooting rocked the nation. Also this weekend, young supporters decked out in Mitch McConnell T-shirts shared a picture on social media of them appearing to grab and choke a cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaign said it “in no way condones” the Ocasio-Cortez photo, saying these young men are in high school and are not officially affiliated with the campaign.
But it’s just the latest politically incorrect/potentially insensitive/arguably tasteless move tied to winning the Senate majority leader’s 2020 reelection, the rest of which the campaign has been unapologetic for.
Which raises the question: What’s going on here? Is McConnell’s campaign purposefully seeking out controversy? Is it playing the game of an increasingly nasty, personal political environment?
There’s no doubt that the politics of this moment are particularly sharp-edged. In the past few weeks, President Trump tweeted racist sentiments about four minority Democratic members of Congress and went after another political opponent’s district, calling Baltimore a “rat and rodent infested mess.” That’s on top of four years of coded and not-so-coded racially divisive language about immigrants from Latin America, language that some scholars say created an environment for this weekend’s El Paso massacre.
McConnell has defended much of what Trump has said or, at least, declined to criticize him for it.
“Well, obviously, I think it’s a good idea to focus on what our Democratic colleagues are up to,” he said about Trump’s “go back” tweets directed at the four congresswomen.
Purely politically speaking, this strategy makes sense. McConnell’s fate is tied to Trump’s.
McConnell is up for reelection in a state that voted for Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016. His Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, is a long-shot candidate to replace him, though her fundraising after getting into the race — $2.5 million in 24 hours — matched some presidential candidates. But she has also struggled to balance being a red-state Democrat, by first saying she probably would have voted for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, then changing her mind after drawing criticism from the left.
Analysts think McConnell’s struggle will come more from the right, in keeping Trump’s base believing that McConnell is an ally to Trump rather than an establishment foe.
So why not try to be more Trump-like? The problem is, if that’s what McConnell is doing, his campaign has lacked the plausible deniability that Trump often so skillfully creates when he does uber-controversial stuff. Trump didn’t say all Mexicans are rapists; he said some — that kind of thing.
A good example of this strategy arguably backfiring on McConnell is the “Cocaine Mitch” T-shirts the campaign started selling in May. It was an attempt to reframe a baseless attack lobbed at McConnell during the 2018 election, when a West Virginia GOP Senate candidate, Don Blankenship, referred to the Senate majority leader as “Cocaine Mitch.”
The name stuck, but in a positive light for McConnell supporters, and the McConnell campaign’s Twitter account elicited plenty of laughter across the spectrum for the way it poked fun at the moniker. Embracing the term became a way to embrace just how unfairly the Senate majority leader’s reputation is tossed around in public discourse, and yet he’s still in power, the longest-serving Republican Senate leader in history.
So McConnell’s campaign decided to sell T-shirts off it to raise money for his 2020 campaign, with no subtlety about the drug use reference.
But while his campaign was high-fiving supporters, drug policy experts said McConnell downplayed the drug-addiction crisis in the nation, which is particularly acute in his state. And that story line of McConnell’s perceived insensitivity is what made it into the national press.
“There’s something troubling about a politician raising money in this way when so many people are languishing in prison for harsh penalties related to cocaine and other drugs,” Michael Collins, the director of Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs office, told The Washington Post’s Reis Thebault.
McConnell’s campaign decision to tweet a photo of a tombstone this weekend with McGrath’s name on it also falls into this category. His supporters built the scene, a real-life depiction of a political cartoon from the Courier Journal. McConnell’s campaign decided to tweet it out, hours after the El Paso massacre. It was a questionable political move that appeared to have more downside than up: It gave his opponent some much-needed airtime to criticize McConnell’s choices.
McConnell could also benefit from having his campaign’s choices thrust into the national spotlight, in the same manner Trump gets a boost out of controversy. It has allowed McConnell to bash the media.
“These young men are not campaign staff, they’re high schoolers and it’s incredible that the national media has sought to once again paint a target on their backs rather than report real, and significant news in our country,” Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, said in a statement. about the social media post of young men choking a cardboard cutout of Ocasio-Cortez.
When we talk about harsh politics, we also have to mention how much McConnell is on the receiving end. Critics of his decision not to bring up election-security bills to prevent Russian hacking of 2020 ballots cast have nicknamed him “Moscow Mitch.” There were protests outside his home, a day after he fractured his shoulder, calling on him to bring up gun-control bills.
A former Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, made light of McConnell’s injury.
It’s clear the politics of this moment is ugly. And for whatever reason, McConnell is in the center of it.