Richard Reeves

The Next Master of the Senate

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Jim Bunning, the junior senator from Kentucky, is probably the best known of the state's congressional delegation because he's the only one in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he knows his place, and in this year's campaign he called the senior senator, Mitch McConnell, "the most powerful Kentuckian in Washington since Alben Barkley."

Bunning was actually underrating his Republican colleague by comparing him to the Kentucky senator who became vice president under Harry S. Truman. McConnell, with a better sense of self, sponsored a Senate resolution that ensures for all time that the state's senior senator will be assigned the desk McConnell now sits behind, the desk once used by Kentucky's great son, Henry Clay.

McConnell, to use Robert Caro's title for Lyndon Johnson, is a new "Master of the Senate." That status was formalized this week when McConnell was elected majority whip by the new Republican majority in the great house of debate.

Debate, however, is not McConnell's greatest talent. He is smart as a whip, but he plays that down at home. During the campaign here last month, he emphasized that he personally has written laws and moved commas around to bring millions of dollars to Kentucky's 4 million people, saying:

"Now for the people who deride these federal investments as pork that doesn't help Kentucky families, I say this: If earmarking and bringing home $500 million a year for hardworking Kentucky families is a crime, then I plead guilty."

That's what he tells them down here. The money coming in is for defense and for agriculture, which is a euphemism for tobacco. Among other things, McConnell sponsored the Tobacco Loss Assistance Program, which is channeling $300 million to tobacco growers. "We have no greater friend of tobacco than Mitch," said Ed Clark, president of the Western Dark-Fired Tobacco Growers.

More important than what he says is what he has done. McConnell has changed Kentucky from a Democratic to a Republican state since his election by 5,269 votes in 1984. This year he got two-thirds of the vote and the endorsement of most of the state's newspapers, including several who disagree with his straight-line conservative voting and his contention that what the First Amendement is really about is preserving the right of rich people and corporations to give money to the Republican Party.

The Danville Advocate-Messenger wrote: "For a state that has a relatively small population, it is extremely important to have influential senators and representatives in Washington." "There is only one word that can describe our senior senator," said The Richmond Register. "That word is intimidating."

A former Democratic state chairman named Bob Babbage put it this way: "Kentucky cannot afford to lose the seniority, respect and clout of Senator McConnell."

He talks about different things in Washington, but he is just as intimidating. "The Darth Vader of campaign finance reform," was Common Cause's description as McConnell twisted and mauled the reform efforts of senators John McCain and Russell Feingold. "The best political mind in the Senate," said Grover Norquist, a conservative strategist.

McConnell won his latest stripes as chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, raising $12 million for other senators, compared with less than $5 million raised by his Democratic counterpart. Collecting and distributing money was the same path to power traveled by Nancy Pelosi, the new leader of House Democrats. Blessed are the fund-raisers, for they shall inherit the leadership.

McConnell, who looks like a grown-up Harry Potter, is 60 years old now. Odds are that for the next 10 years he will be one of the country's five most important Republicans. A master of the Senate.

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