While President Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been one of the driving forces of conservative power in the nation’s capital.
As one of the longest-serving senators in US history, McConnell has distinguished himself as a savvy but highly partisan politician.
McConnell’s profile gained a considerable boost when he became one of President Barack Obama’s main political opponents. The Kentucky senator has made a habit of obstructing any agendas that don’t align with his conservative views.
The political career of Mitch McConnell
Addison Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell Jr. was born in Sheffield, Alabama in 1942. In his adolescence, his father relocated the family to Louisville, Kentucky where McConnell attended high school and the University of Louisville. After receiving a B.A. from the university, McConnell completed a law degree at the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1967.
Following internships at the offices of local congressmen, McConnell became the chief legislative assistant for Senator Marlow Cook of Kentucky. He served as a deputy assistant attorney general during the administration of President Gerald Ford before being elected a county judge-executive in 1977. Less than a decade later, McConnell began a Senate career that continues to this day.
McConnell beat an incumbent Democrat to win a seat in the US Senate in 1984. He has held his seat ever since, becoming the longest-serving senator in Kentucky’s history.
Considered “the most conservative leader of either party,” he has twice been named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World (in 2015 and 2019).
In 2011, The Atlantic labeled McConnell “a master manipulator and strategist” and the “architect of the Republican resurgence.” After the election of President Obama and Republican losses in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate in 2008, McConnell’s party was weakened.
But in the 2010 midterm elections, the party regained the House and won back seats in the Senate. A decade later, he remains one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington DC.
McConnell is married to Elaine L. Chao, the current US Secretary of Transportation in the administration of President Donald Trump. Chao, who has had an extensive career in both the private and public sector, was the first Asian-American woman appointed to a president’s cabinet.
McConnell has three children with his previous wife, Sherrill Redmon, to whom he was married from 1968-1980.
The Senate Minority and Majority Leader
The US Constitution does not include a description of the Senate Majority Leader as the role only came into existence in the early 20th century. The position is not voted on in general elections, but is determined by members of the Senate. The position carries no term limits.
The party with the most seats in the Senate (the majority) designates who will be the Senate Majority Leader, while the party with the second most seats designates a Senate Minority Leader. Though it is not the law of the land, American politics is functionally a two-party system (with some politically independent actors, often known as third-party candidates).
In 2006, after McConnell had spent more than two decades in Congress, Republicans in the Senate voted for him to be the Senate Minority Leader. In 2015, at the beginning of his fourth decade in Congress, McConnell became the Senate Majority Leader, a role he still holds today.
McConnell’s clashes with President Obama
In 2008, as the Senate Minority Leader, McConnell congratulated Obama on his victory shortly after the election. In that speech before the Senate, McConnell vowed to work with the president to tackle the challenges facing America.
However, two years later, after Republicans had won back the majority in the House, McConnell noted in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, “Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”
As the leader of the opposition party while Obama was in office, McConnell was understandably resistant to the Democratic president’s agenda, especially the Obama-led healthcare overhaul that created the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare).
McConnell was outspoken in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which became Obama’s signature policy accomplishment.
Under McConnell’s leadership, the GOP was nicknamed “The Party of No” for what political author Michael Grunwald called its “cynical and political” focus on obstructing Obama’s agenda.
Once the Democrats regained the House in 2018, McConnell became known as the “Grim Reaper” for refusing to consider bills sent to the Senate from the House.
Perhaps the most controversial example of McConnell’s reputation for obstructionism was his decision not to bring Obama’s 2016 nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, up for a vote in the Senate following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Even before Obama offered his nomination, McConnell declared that, since it was an election year, he would not allow President Obama to fill the vacancy.
McConnell cited the “Biden rule” (named after Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden) as grounds for his decision.
In 1992, then-Senator Biden opined on the Senate floor that if there was a Supreme Court vacancy, sitting-President George H.W. Bush should not nominate someone because that year was an election year. However, that “rule” was never officially adopted and no vacancies occurred in 1992.
After successfully blocking Garland’s nomination, McConnell shepherded two conservative justices, nominated by Trump, to the Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch (in 2017) and Brett Kavanaugh (in 2018).
Speaking to Fox News in February 2020, McConnell said he would confirm a nominee to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court this year, despite it being an election year. The difference, he explained, is that in 2020 the Senate is controlled by the same party as the president.
In the same interview, McConnell expressed his desire to fill all judicial vacancies by the end of the year. In the first three years of Trump’s presidency, McConnell helped fill 50 circuit judge vacancies, just short of the total number filled over all eight years of Obama’s presidency.
McConnell has focused on confirming young, conservative judges to fill the vacancies. Both circuit and lower court judgeships confirmed by the Senate are lifetime appointments.
McConnell’s success in confirming conservative judges has earned him begrudging respect from other political operatives. Steve Bannon, a former advisor to Trump, has expressed his mixed feelings toward the senator, citing his entrenched political power, but also his success in confirming conservative judges.“There’s nobody I’ve had bigger disagreements [with] than Mitch McConnell because to me, he’s the epitome of the establishment,” Bannon said in a 2019 interview on Frontline PBS. “That being said, if you’re a conservative, he essentially saved the country.”