Politics & Government

McConnell steps out of the shadows and becomes top Democratic enemy

Democrats’ new congressional Enemy Number One, thanks to his opposition to the party’s effort to expand voting rights for everyone: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It’s a new role for the Kentucky Republican. While Democrats blast away at President Donald Trump, and Republicans try to demonize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McConnell was mostly left alone in partisan ads and tweets. The public just didn’t know him well enough.

Not anymore. Democrats who took control of the House last month are pushing a sweeping ethics and voting rights package. McConnell declared it dead in his chamber even before it was formally introduced, and went to the Senate floor on four different days to call the proposal a “power grab.”

So Democrats are fighting back hard.

McConnell got ripped at a House committee hearing on the legislation as Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, noted how the senator calls the bill that aims to make it easier for citizens to register and vote a “power grab” by Democrats.

“He’s right about one thing. It is a power grab, but it is not by Democrats,” said Cummings, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It is by American citizens who voted for reform in this last election and sent a clear message that they want to exercise their constitutional right to vote without interference.”

McConnell, though not by name, also was a target of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address last week. Abrams, who narrowly lost the November election, has started an organization, Fair Fight, to advocate for voting rights.

“We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab,’ “ Abrams said.

Democrats also maintain that McConnell is inadvertently helping the cause politically, even as he wields the power to block the measure.

“In some ways his opposition could strengthen the demand for change because it reflects so many of the things the public is angry about, that there’s a group of insiders who get to whisper in the ear of lawmakers,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, one of the bill’s prime movers. “He’s embraced the idea of trying to stop it from seeing the light of day and we’re undeterred by that.”

McConnell — who is up for re-election in 2020 and can always use a boost with conservatives who have been skeptical of his support for President Donald Trump — is embracing the starring role.

The drama began in early December when he told a gathering of business leaders at a Wall Street Journal forum that the legislation is “not going to go anywhere in the Senate.”

This year, McConnell has delivered four days of speeches on the Senate floor, arguing that the legislation would amount to a “massive federal takeover of America’s elections.”

He’s written opinion pieces in the Washington Post and his home state’s Lexington Herald-Leader, panning a “bill drafted by Pelosi and her liberal allies to make it easier for Democrats to get elected in the first place.”

Democrats named the package H.R. 1 as a sign that it’s the priority of the new majority. Party leaders say voting rights are a key concern for many independent and Democratic voters.

The bill would allow for automatic national voter registration, expand early voting, provide for greater disclosure of campaign contributions and restore voting rights for ex-felons, who are automatically barred from voting in Kentucky. It also proposes making Election Day a federal holiday and creating up to six days of paid leave for federal employees serving as poll workers.

The measure also would restore protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court fractured in 2013 and guard against efforts by state officials to purge voting rolls.

The 2018 elections were punctuated by allegations of voter suppression and election fraud. In Georgia, Democrats and voting rights advocates complained that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp aided his campaign by cutting hundreds of thousands of mostly-minority voters from the rolls as he oversaw elections as secretary of state.

Critics see McConnell’s stance as protecting Republicans and their donors.

“He’s defending a rigged system that favors his special interest donors at great cost to everyone else,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a campaign finance political action committee.

But McConnell accuses Democrats of creating a crisis, noting that 2018 had the highest midterm turnout rate in half a century and 2016 set a record for presidential ballots cast.

“If you believed the Democrat rhetoric, you’d be shocked to see the freedom, openness, and availability of the electoral franchise across our country in the year 2019,” he said.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.