Sen. Mitch McConnell is getting a demotion: Here's what it means for Kentucky

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's reelection pitch to Kentucky voters centered on the influence he wields in Congress and how it helps the state "punch above its weight" compared with heavy-hitters like New York and California. 

But now, two months after Kentuckians gave him a landslide victory, McConnell is on the verge of a hefty demotion after Democrats swept a pair of pivotal runoff races in Georgia and won control of the Senate.

"We're going to lose serious clout," University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss said of McConnell's loss of his role as majority leader. 

McConnell, who will soon become minority leader, is poised to lose his ability to set the Senate's agenda and determine which proposals do and don't come up for a vote, Voss said. He won't be able to block President-elect Joe Biden's nominees to the federal judiciary either, as long as Democrats stick together on those decisions.

And for the many voters in deep-red Kentucky who like McConnell's brand of partisan politics, Voss said a Democrat-ruled Senate generally will prevent their longtime senator from delivering on conservatives' ideological goals.

Background:With Dem sweep in Georgia, McConnell will lose majority leader role

McConnell, in an interview Friday, acknowledged he and his conservative colleagues won't be able to go on offense like they have during President Donald Trump's term, when the GOP ran the Senate and the White House. 

"I think it’s pretty safe to say that we will be on defense trying to protect the accomplishments of the last four years," McConnell said.

However, he still will helm the Senate's Republican caucus and remain one of Congress' top four leaders.

That means his influence (and, by extension, Kentucky's) — while diminished — will continue to be considerable, noted Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

That's especially true because the Senate's seats will be split 50-50 between the Democrats and the GOP, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker once she's inaugurated on Jan. 20.

"Kentucky has less power and influence than it had when McConnell was majority leader," Sabato said. "But ... Kentucky has a big consolation prize in that McConnell is still the most influential Republican, and they have 50 seats."

McConnell told The Courier Journal on Friday: "I tell my colleagues: If you’ve got to be in the minority, 50’s the best number you could have." 

More on this:McConnell may still have his thumb on US attorney picks

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., stands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as a joint session of the House and Senate convenes to confirm the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

McConnell said he and the incoming majority leader, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, will negotiate a power-sharing agreement concerning how the Senate will operate with a 50-50 split. 

He noted, unsurprisingly, that he'd prefer to have kept the majority and his ability to control the Senate agenda. "Obviously, I'd rather be able to put what I think is best for the country on the floor," he said.

But he pointed out he'll have the second-best job as minority leader, and he'll retain plenty of clout because of it. 

OJ Oleka, who used to work in Kentucky politics and co-founded a bipartisan coalition called AntiRacismKY last year, said the Bluegrass State will still be able to punch above its weight with McConnell in the No. 2 job.

OJ Oleka

Oleka pointed out McConnell already served as minority leader from 2007 until 2015 — the year he became majority leader — so he knows how to use that role effectively.

And he said the longtime senator still can accomplish what Kentuckians reelected him last fall to do.

"Kentucky voters sent McConnell back individually because we believe in his ability to ensure that if it was possible to get bills that match Kentucky's values through the Congress, he would be the one to do it," Oleka said. "And if it was possible to stop bills from getting through the Congress that did not match Kentucky values, he would be the one to do it.

"That has not changed," he said. "That was his promise to us, and I think he’ll live up to it."

McConnell stomped Democrat Amy McGrath in the November election by about 20%, but not all Kentuckians were sad to see him lose his majority leadership when Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock won both of Georgia's Senate seats in Tuesday's runoff election.

From apartheid to affirmative action:McConnell's complicated history on race

"I’m one person who was very, very glad," said Louisville NAACP President and national NAACP board member Raoul Cunningham.

Cunningham suggested Black Americans in Kentucky and throughout the country could be positively impacted by McConnell's demotion, particularly because key legislation will have an opportunity to advance in the Senate instead of sitting stagnant on his desk. 

"I think that the African American population will feel benefits from McConnell not serving as majority floor leader," he said.

As an example of a proposal McConnell refused to let senators vote on as majority leader that would help Black Americans, Cunningham pointed to a bill that effectively would replace a part of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated in 2013.

McConnell was heavily criticized for preventing that bill from moving forward. When asked about it last year, he emphasized that the Voting Rights Act remains the law of the land. "It's still intact," he said. 

Now, with an incoming Democratic majority leader, Cunningham said, "The Voting Rights Act bill, I think, will have a chance of being at least debated on the floor of the Senate." 

Cunningham also cited McConnell's opposition to and attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act as a move that "went against what many Kentuckians needed."

McConnell's use of his power as majority leader has been controversial, from the "legislative graveyard" of bills that effectively died on his desk to his relentless and successful efforts to confirm well over 200 Republican-appointed federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices.

Shawnte West, an affiliate of Black Lives Matter Louisville, said she's kind of divided on the question of what McConnell's loss of the majority leadership could mean for Kentucky.

"You know, as much as a lot of people will agree that Mitch McConnell did some really bad things, he attempted to represent Kentucky and he did get some resources for Kentucky that we otherwise might not get," she said.

But West hopes McConnell's shift to minority leader will open the door for policies like student loan forgiveness, higher unemployment benefits and increased support for mental health treatment to at least be considered. 

'We will not bow to lawlessness':McConnell slams storming of US Capitol 

She also said Kentuckians, who live in one of the nation's poorest states, hopefully will benefit from proposals congressional Democrats might advance that would provide more social services and assistance.

"I think that I’m still optimistic because I think of all of the legislation that now is really going to be able to see the light of day," she said. "... We’ve just been under the oppressive regime of Mitch McConnell for so long that it’s really hard to even think of all the wonderful small pieces of legislation that might even be able to come about without him being at the helm."

On the campaign trail last year, McConnell pointed to the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package he shepherded through Congress that spring as one big example of his ability to deliver millions and even billions of dollars in federal funds to Kentucky.

Kentuckians who worry McConnell's demotion will affect how much money flows to their home state from Washington, D.C., should be able to rest easy, though.

Voss, the UK professor, said McConnell's shift to minority leader doesn't put the commonwealth in danger of seeing a big drop in financial support from the U.S. government.

Kentucky generally receives a disproportionate share of federal dollars compared with other states partly because of its significant poverty levels, he explained. Plus, McConnell still will be one of Congress' top four leaders.

Kentucky's longtime senator said his ability to secure federal funds, as well as priority legislation, for the commonwealth will be undiminished. 

"I'll still be one of the Big Four," McConnell said Friday. "When you end up in a big negotiation at the end of the year, each of the four of us have a veto power over what goes in and what doesn't."

As an example, he said he ensured the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which includes significant reforms for a signature Kentucky industry, made it into the massive federal funding law Congress passed in December.

He said he'll still be able to accomplish that kind of thing as minority leader. 

Both Voss and Sabato, of the University of Virginia, said McConnell is likely to cut deals on some proposals with Democrats because bipartisan support is often necessary to approve things in the Senate, especially when it's so narrowly divided.

"What people don't understand about him is: Yes, he’s a hardcore conservative, and he’s always going to do what benefits the conservative side, but he’s also a horse trader," Sabato said. "If a compromise is needed, he’ll find a way to get one."

ICYMI:Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announces she's resigning

During his 2020 reelection bid, McConnell pitched himself to Kentucky voters as a conservative bulwark with the power to block "radical" liberal policies. 

As minority leader, McConnell said his ability to do that "depends on the issue."

One thing Senate Democrats could do on their own, if they all stick together, is pass the big tax increases Biden campaigned on, McConnell said. Congressional Republicans did something similar by passing 2017's landmark tax reform law without any Democrat support.  

But he indicated he and his fellow Republican senators will wield enough power to block many progressive proposals, like the Green New Deal, because such bills generally require 60 votes to pass.

McConnell also said he's open to working with Biden, who served alongside him in the Senate for over 20 years, on certain policy issues, such as the country's infrastructure needs.

"... We have a cordial relationship," he said Friday. "We've done deals together before, and I'm hoping there are some things that we can work on together — and I think there will be."

No one knows the rules of the Senate and how to push and pull the levers of power better than McConnell, said Tres Watson, a Kentucky-based Republican political strategist.

"He still has a incredibly powerful ability to shape legislation and to help out the state, regardless of whether he’s the majority leader or minority leader," Watson said. 

With a 50-50 split in the Senate, he pointed out it will be vital for both McConnell and Schumer to keep their respective party's senators in line on important votes. 

"There's very little margin of error for either leader," he said. 

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26