Minority leader’s abrupt about-face on corporations in politics
WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell has long been a preeminent defender of a role in politics for corporate America, welcoming its participation and, most importantly, its money. So it astounded many this week when he cried foul over Major League Baseball and companies like Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines jumping into the fray against Georgia’s new voting restrictions.
“If I were running a major corporation, I’d stay out of politics,” McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said while warning of “consequences” for the private sector if it sided with Democrats and “far-left mobs” opposing new limits to ballot access.
Democrats quickly roasted McConnell, noting that he has personally flourished by virtue of undisclosed, unlimited corporate donations to Republican political efforts.
“He has no problem with all of them weighing in support of the Trump tax cuts,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has long battled McConnell over disclosure of donations. “He has no problem with them weighing in with laws to discourage unions. When they weigh in on behalf of voters, that crosses a line.”
On Wednesday, McConnell conceded a failure to communicate.
“I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday,” he said at an event in Paducah, Kentucky, where he insisted that corporate critics were misinformed and acting on distorted portrayals of the Georgia law provided by no less a figure than President Joe Biden. “They are certainly entitled to be involved in politics,” he said. “So my complaint about the CEOs: Read the damn bill.”
His misstep aside, it should be no surprise that McConnell, who has built his political image on fighting campaign finance restrictions, is embracing a role as the No. 1 foe of a campaign spending overhaul and voting rights expansion bill being pushed by Biden and congressional Democrats.
In meetings with colleagues, speeches and media appearances, he has been blistering the wide-ranging plan he views as an existential threat to his party’s future, one he claims is based on a “big lie” that Republicans in Georgia and other states are employing racist tactics reminiscent of the Jim Crow era to limit voting.
The phrase — the same one Democrats have used to describe former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — suggests that McConnell is planning a full-scale effort to define the voting rights bill as corrupt and a blatant power grab.
“Our challenge, of course, is they are going to make this about race somehow, they are going to make this about turnout somehow,” McConnell said in an interview. “It is about neither. It is about a partisan effort to rewrite the rules in a way they think benefits them.”
The Democratic legislation in Congress is aimed at countering statutes like Georgia’s and proposals in other Republican-led states to tighten voter eligibility and ballot access after Trump’s loss. Many Republicans attribute his defeat to pandemic-imposed changes last year, including easier voting by mail and extended early voting, and to a failure to enforce strict voter verification. They are racing to clamp down to prevent a repeat.
McConnell called the scope of the voting rights bill moving through Congress — which would alter how local elections are conducted, limit undisclosed money, stiffen campaign law enforcement and assert Washington jurisdiction over statewide redistricting, among other fundamental changes — “jaw-droppingly audacious.”
“To give them credit,” he said of Democrats, “they didn’t leave out a single thing they thought would advantage them and disadvantage us.”
McConnell’s obsession with campaign law dates to before he was in Congress, when he taught a course on political science at the University of Louisville in the 1970s. In the years since, he has carved out a position as the party’s leading and sometimes lonely voice against tighter campaign laws.
Many fellow Republicans shared his views but were not willing to be as public as McConnell on a matter some considered politically problematic. His work on campaign rules helped him rise to Senate leader.
“It is something I feel strongly about,” he said. “I’ve had an interest in this for most of my life before I even came to the Senate.”
He celebrated the fact that his opponents in past campaign finance fights had called him Darth Vader — the dark force opposed to a more accountable system. He took Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., all the way to the Supreme Court in 2003 in a losing fight to overturn the law that bore McCain’s name. But McConnell felt vindicated when the makeup of the court changed and much of the law was overturned in the 2010 Citizens United decision.