U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not smile much. But behind that poker-face, he must be gloating.
The Kentucky Republican not only defied the predictions of a majority of political number crunchers in Washington, who projected Democrats would win control of the Senate in Tuesday’s elections; he emerges from the vote holding all the aces as Joe Biden, the presumed presidential winner, seeks to push his agenda though Congress.
For the next two years, at least, Mr. McConnell, who alone will decide which bills get to a vote in the Senate, will hold a veto over Mr. Biden’s tax and spending plans. Mr. Biden’s vows to repeal U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and enact a massive green energy plan would appear to be dead in the water as long as Mr. McConnell calls the shots in the Senate. Never at one with Mr. Trump – Mr. McConnell is an old-school Republican for whom gentility counts – he is now freed from having to kowtow to him.
Prospects for a US$1-trillion stimulus bill that includes big grants to cash-strapped states also appear dim. Mr. McConnell has characterized a bill proposed by the House of Representatives as a bailout in disguise for profligate Democratic-led state governments.
“I look out for Middle America,” Mr. McConnell said after winning re-election to the Kentucky Senate seat he has held since 1984. “And I’ve been sent back to Washington so that working people in this country who make things and grow things and mine things and raise families in our smaller cities and towns and teach our kids our values are going to keep their voice, keep their influence and help our nation come back even stronger.”
That encapsulates the message that allowed Republicans to retain control of the Senate, pick up seats in the House of Representatives, and make important gains in state legislatures on Tuesday. Those results showed just how badly Democrats erred in pushing a big government agenda and playing footsie with culture warriors on the party’s leftist fringe.
No issue illustrated this more than Mr. Biden’s unwillingness to repudiate members of his own party who pushed to expand the size of the U.S. Supreme Court from its current nine members. Republican charges that a Biden administration would seek to “pack the court” to reinstate a liberal majority mobilized conservatives and moderates alike in opposition.
“Every high school student in America learns about Franklin Roosevelt’s unprincipled assault on judicial independence,” Mr. McConnell said last month, referring to the Depression-era Democratic president’s unsuccessful attempt to push through legislation to name up to six more judges to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt feared much of his New Deal agenda, including Social Security, might be struck down by a conservative court.
No major U.S. politician had toyed with the idea of expanding the Court since and the episode is considered a dark moment in Roosevelt’s otherwise unimpeachable presidency. That Mr. Biden refused to dismiss the idea only seemed to validate Republican claims that the 77-year-old former vice-president had become a puppet of the radical left.
If Tuesday’s election provided clarity about anything at all, it is that Americans did not want to see a Democratic trifecta controlling the White House, Senate and House. “Middle America,” to use Mr. McConnell’s moniker, was divided about where it stood on Mr. Trump. But it was unambiguous in its rejection of an expansionist Democratic agenda. That helped save Republican Senate incumbents in Maine and North Carolina. Both of Georgia’s Senate races will likely be decided in run-off elections in January. But Democrats would need to win both of them to win control of the Senate, a tall order by any account.
Democrats poured US$100-million into trying to defeat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. He ended up winning by more than 10 percentage points.
Billionaire Mike Bloomberg plowed US$100-million of his own money trying to put Florida, Texas and Ohio into Mr. Biden’s column. He failed, just as he did in his own megalomaniacal bid for the Democratic nomination, on which he spent US$1-billion.
Mr. McConnell was vastly outspent by his Democratic rival in his own re-election bid in Kentucky. Despite reams of newspaper and TV stories about him being in trouble, he never broke a sweat. He beat Amy McGrath, who raked in US$90-million in donations, by 20 percentage points.
His victory capped off a banner 2020 for the phlegmatic 78-year-old – and it is not over yet. He never bat an eye in the face of Democratic howling that he had no right to bring the appointment of Mr. Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to a Senate vote in an election year. Mr. McConnell had used the same argument to prevent a vote on former president Barack Obama’s top court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016.
Mr. McConnell did not become the longest-serving Republican Senate majority leader by caving in the face of controversy. He is relentlessly strategic and he plays a long game, always with an eye toward the next election. And he is now more powerful than ever.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.