Sen. Mitch McConnell, the epitome of an establishment out of favor with voters, is walking through fire this election year as leader of the Republican forces.
His mantle was singed — but not burnt — by the embarrassment of his hand-picked Senate candidate losing big back home this week to a tea party activist who has promised to take government away from establishment figures like, well, Mitch McConnell.
If Republicans like Kentucky primary winner Rand Paul capture more Senate seats in the fall, McConnell will still be their leader, replete with the power to advance or stem their ambitions. He sealed that role for himself months ago with a political insurance policy shielding him from any midterm election unpleasantnesss.
The five-term Kentuckian suffered a stinging defeat Tuesday night when Paul trounced Trey Grayson, McConnell's preferred Republican candidate. The results inspired some activists to question whether the results had jeopardized McConnell's considerable influence over the GOP caucus and therefore, his position as Obama's chief Senate foil.
As is his practice every two years, McConnell, 68, months ago began roaming the Senate with a contract of sorts: a white "whip card" typically used for legislation, preprinted with Republican senators' names. One by one, he approached them, secured their support for him as leader next year, and checked off names.
Long before the Kentucky primary this week, he had assembled enough votes to guarantee him another two years as GOP leader. It was classic McConnell strategy, his signature firewall against prospective challengers who might have been emboldened by a poor Republican performance at the polls.
"Oh yeah, I'm very supportive of him," South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said Wednesday.
Good thing for McConnell. The political world outside his Senate comfort zone is teeming with evidence that Republicans have significant obstacles to gaining control of either chamber of Congress in the November elections.
McConnell is the GOP's most senior elected official, so the party's problems are in some measure his, too:
—Paul's drubbing of Grayson has an unflattering backstory for McConnell, Kentucky's longest-serving senator. Paul won only with an endorsement from a senator from outside Kentucky: DeMint. McConnell and some of his formidable organization dug in for Grayson — and still Paul skated with the nomination.
—The same night, a Democrat won Pennsylvania's open House seat — one sign that Republicans have yet to figure out how to capture winnable seats in their drive to increase their share in Congress.
—Also on Tuesday came an unexpected blow: Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., announced he was resigning over his affair with an aide. It was a fresh mark against Republicans in a year when voters have bristled at what they perceive as a sense of entitlement among entrenched lawmakers.
—Earlier in the primary season, angry Utah Republicans took out a key McConnell lieutenant, Sen. Bob Bennett.
McConnell has had a tougher time navigating politics in the world outside the Senate than in. Two stints as his party's Senate campaign chief ended with no seats gained in 1998 and a 50-50 seat split between Republicans and Democrats in 2000. He's a famously disciplined, less than fiery speaker; making a compelling case to voters nationally — and on Tuesday, in his own back yard — has never been his forte.
The bespectacled, studious McConnell is the Washington establishment.
He has spent the better part of the last 40 years in federal offices, as a senior staffer to Sen. Marlow Cook and an assistant attorney general. In the Senate, he has been a fierce opponent of campaign finance reform and a staunch defender of earmarks, special federal funding set aside for specific, home-state projects. McConnell is married to former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao; earlier this year, he wept on the Senate floor during a farewell speech to a longtime chief of staff.
McConnell is perhaps the Senate's best tactician. He is by far the cooler head when he and Majority Leader Harry Reid are locked in battle. By reading the rhythms of the finicky chamber and doing each member's unique political calculus, McConnell has had success holding his 41 Republicans together against Democrat-sponsored legislation, including health care overhaul.
He's also applied crushing pressure on Republican troops to vote against Democratic bills as often as possible, according to numerous senators of both parties.
Even so, health care passed and is now law. A financial regulatory reform bill appears poised to pass with bipartisan support. And there's a chance that if he gets what he wants — more Republican seats in the Senate — some will be occupied by activists opposed to the very earmarks McConnell supports.
The good news for newcomers: Any senator, even rookies, can object to and block Senate business.
The bad news for anyone who tries: The Senate is something of a rabbit hole, where freshman carry little more clout than their staffs. And McConnell knows how to make life there difficult.
Just hours after his embarrassment in Kentucky, McConnell succeeded in raising a last-minute obstacle to the sweeping financial reform bill. In the well of the Senate, arms crossed, he watched intently as newcomer Scott Brown, R-Mass., considered whether to make good on his promise to Reid to advance an amendment.
To Reid's vexation, Brown instead voted to stall it. McConnell quickly stepped between the Democrats and Brown, preventing anyone from changing the new senator's mind.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects Chao to former labor secretary, sted housing)
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