WASHINGTON — It’s not quite “Trump-McConnell 2020,” but it might as well be.
As he runs for reelection, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is positioning himself as the president’s wingman, his trusted right hand in Congress, transformed from a behind-the-scenes player into a prominent if sometimes reviled Republican like none other besides Donald Trump himself.
“In Washington, President Trump and I are making America great again!” he declared at a rally in Kentucky, his voice rising over protesters.
Other than Democrat Nancy Pelosi — and more recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — no current politician has so quickly become such a high-profile object of partisan scorn. McConnell was heckled last weekend at his home state’s annual “Fancy Farm” political picnic, and protesters outside his Louisville house hurled so many profanities that Twitter temporarily shut down his account for posting video of them online.
Undaunted, he revels in the nickname he’s given himself — the “Grim Reaper,” bragging that he’s burying the House Democrats’ agenda — though he seems stung by one lobbed by opponents, “Moscow Mitch.”
But the Democrats’ agenda includes gun legislation to require background checks that Trump now wants to consider, forcing McConnell to adjust his earlier refusal to do so. The Senate leader has been here before, pushing ahead with a Trump priority that’s unpopular with most Republicans. But this will test both his relationship with the president and his grip on the GOP majority.
All while he’s campaigning to keep his job.
McConnell is even more dependent on Trump’s popularity in Kentucky than on his own, a different political landscape from the one he faced in 2014, before the president took the White House.
“They need each other,” says Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to McConnell.
The new McConnell strategy shows just how far Trump has transformed the GOP, turning a banker’s-collar-and-cufflinks conservative into a “Fake News!” shouting senator.
Theirs was not an easy alliance in Trump’s first year, and they went a long stretch without talking to each other. But two years on, McConnell has proven a loyal implementer of the president’s initiatives, and Trump no longer assails the senator on Twitter.
Perhaps no issue has drawn the unlikely partners together more than the current reckoning over national gun violence. Republicans, long allied with the National Rifle Association, have resisted stricter laws on firearm and ammunition sales. But the frequency of mass shootings and the grave toll are intensifying pressure to act.
Trump on Friday revived his interest in having Congress take a look at expanding federal background checks and other gun safety laws long pushed by Democrats, insisting he will be able to get Republicans on board. McConnell, in a shift, said he’s now willing to consider those ideas “front and center” when Congress returns in the fall.
Said Trump, “I think I have a greater influence now over the Senate.”
But McConnell doesn’t call himself the Grim Reaper for nothing. He is well known on Capitol Hill for his legislative blocking skills, having stopped much of the Obama administration’s agenda when he first became Senate leader and more recently halting bills coming from the Democratic-controlled House, including one to expand background checks.
“We’ve seen it before,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a tweet after the weekend mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “An awful shooting occurs. @realDonaldTrump expresses interest in helping. Republicans try to get him off the hook with lesser measures. Nothing happens.”
In fact, McConnell and his allies have taken on Trump’s style, lashing out at media and political opponents. When campaign volunteers came under criticism for appearing to choke a cardboard cutout of Ocasio-Cortez at the picnic in a photo circulated online, McConnell allies said the high schoolers were being treated unfairly by opponents trying to maliciously shame them in public.
The shift in McConnell’s strategy is not lost on Democrat Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot and the leading Democrat hoping to win the party’s nomination to challenge him next fall, her campaign said.
McGrath is telling Kentuckians that McConnell is part of the problem, a long-serving leader who has stood in the way of gun safety, health care and other legislation for years, and hardly the one to fulfill Trump’s promises. Democrats and Republicans say she is expected to attract plenty of fundraising dollars and volunteers in a race that could easily approach $100 million, second only to the presidential contest.
“It almost feels like we have a mini-presidential campaign going on here,” said Jennings.
Kentucky remains a GOP stronghold, and Trump is extraordinarily popular, which is part of the reason McConnell is tying his own political future to the president. But it’s unclear if his is the right strategy for the times.
With a national profile, McConnell’s record is coming under more scrutiny.
An investment in a Kentucky aluminum plant by a company with ties to Russia has raised questions. And McConnell’s refusal to allow the Senate to consider a House-passed election security bill has resulted in opponents calling him “Moscow Mitch” following Russia’s 2016 campaign interference. His campaign tries to make light of questions surrounding the shipping business run by the family of his wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary.
The state’s lone Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth, whose district includes liberal Louisville, said McConnell has never been especially popular in Kentucky but has managed to keep winning elections.
“He’s a survivor,” Yarmuth said. “He’s in good shape only because Trump’s at the top of the ticket.”
At the weekend events in Kentucky, McConnell was relishing his Senate post, telling voters that as the only member in congressional leadership not from New York or California, “I’m the guy that sticks up for middle America.”
At breakfast before taking the stage, he said he was ready to take on all comers.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “There’s nothing I like better than engaging these crazy left-wingers and saving this country,” he said. “And we’re going to do precisely that.”
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Louisville contributed to this report.