Politics & Government

Kentucky’s McConnell reflects after reaching the top

There were only two things Mitch McConnell didn’t want to talk about Thursday — whether he will run for re-election in 2020 and his eventual legacy.

In his first one-on-one interview since his landslide re-election to a sixth term and his expected ascendance to U.S. Senate majority leader, McConnell talked at length with the Herald-Leader about how he wants to use his new role to help Kentucky, a possible White House run by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and the conventional wisdom that he is unpopular.

McConnell, relaxed and in a great mood in his Louisville home Thursday, wouldn’t say whether he will try for a seventh term in the year 2020, and he cut short any discussion of what his legacy might be.

“I don’t want to start writing a legacy now,” said McConnell, who is 72. “I’m looking to the next six years. When you’ve been in office as long as I have, everybody wants you to look back. I’m looking forward, and I’ve been given some fairly significant responsibility in Washington and I’m going to try to exercise that in the most responsible way I can and try to make some changes for the country. So I’d rather not muse about the past.”

Since his overwhelming win Tuesday, McConnell has been asked primarily about how he’ll approach his role as majority leader, what can be achieved with a Democratic president and what compromises can be reached on national issues.

But when it comes to looking out for Kentucky, a promise that was central to McConnell’s campaign message, the senator said his top priority is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reigned in.”

“It will be hard because the only good tool to do that ... is through the spending process, and if [President Barack Obama] feels strongly enough about it, he can veto the bill,” McConnell said. “But I view it as a complete outrage that he could not get cap and trade through the Congress when he owned the place — owned the place — and decided to do it anyway.”

As he rattled off the coal-producing counties he won Tuesday for the first time in his career, he noted that Pike County, McConnell said he feels a “deep responsibility” to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions at coal-burning power plants.

“I’m absolutely convinced from the people I talk to around the country, not just here but around the country, that coal has a future,” McConnell said. “The question is whether or not coal is going to have a future here. It’s got a future in Europe. It’s got a future in China, India, Australia. But not here?”

He added: “It makes me very angry, and I’m going to do everything I can to try to stop them.”

In addition to coal, McConnell said he hopes to boost the state’s fledgling hemp industry. He’s also “intrigued” by Paul’s proposal to fund highway projects by luring overseas capital back to the United State with a lower repatriation tax rate. Such a plan “could conceivably give us a way to go forward on the Brent-Spence bridge” in Northern Kentucky, he said.

“Because it looks to me like the tolling issue is so hot up there that it’s unlikely to be broken,” he said.

McConnell also is intrigued by Paul’s plans for 2016, when Kentucky’s junior senator faces re-election to his Senate seat while potentially running for president.

It’s a safe bet that Paul won’t be the only member of McConnell’s GOP caucus who considers trying for a move to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Does that require a tricky balance?

“(It’s) not tricky at all,” McConnell said. “Obviously, I’m a big supporter of Rand Paul. We’ve developed a very tight relationship, and I’m for him.”

For president?

“Whatever he decides to do,” McConnell said. “I don’t think he’s made a final decision on that. But he’ll be able to count on me.”

McConnell acknowledged that Paul’s position “is complicated,” since Paul’s re-election bid could suffer from the attacks that come with a presidential run, but he said he would reserve any advice he has for Paul for their private conversations.

Looking back on his own race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell said the most bothersome ads against him were those by Grimes that suggested he had attained personal wealth from his actions in the Senate and one from the Senate Majority PAC in the closing days of the race that implied he changed his stock portfolio based on insider information around the time of the global economic crisis of 2008.

“I think the one that bothered me the most was that I had somehow enriched myself during my public service, which was a blatant lie,” he said.

The other ad, he said laughing, was false because “I don’t even own any individual stock.”

“It would be pretty hard to be an inside trader when you don’t even own any individual stock,” said McConnell, who has investments in mutual funds. “But the good news is obviously people didn’t buy it. And I think this is kind of a contact sport.”

McConnell said he believes he was held to a different standard than Grimes by media markets in Lexington and Louisville that are out of touch with the rest of the state

“After every election there’s been an effort to kind of explain it away by saying I had an inadequate opponent,” McConnell said. “The only answer I have to that is 9-0 is 9-0. And I was incredibly lucky to get incompetent opponents nine straight times. In fact, I’ve had a lot of very credible opponents.”

McConnell said he doesn’t “think there’s any question that the two big papers have been unsympathetic to me and my career for a very long time.”

Regarding his low favorable ratings in the state, McConnell dismissed the polling numbers by saying “there’s very little tangible evidence of it when it comes to voting.”

He added: “I also think it’s noteworthy I’ve been elected leader of my party four times without opposition and the fifth time will happen a week from today. That’s pretty hard to accomplish if you’re also unpopular, wouldn’t you think?”

Still, McConnell said he really means it when he says he’s proud of his enemies on the left.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me to gain their approval,” he said. “That’s not how I measure my work, by what they think. And I think I’ve earned the respect of the people that I think make the most difference. The people of this state, who have shown an enormous amount of confidence in me.”

McConnell talked at length about how much the Republican Party has gained in number and influence in Kentucky since he started in politics, but said it was a “disappointment” that the state House didn’t go to the GOP Tuesday night.

Distracted by his own race and responsibilities to his Senate colleagues, McConnell lamented that he wasn’t able to help that effort more.

“Not that my involvement would have made a difference, but normally I would have been all over that like a cheap rug,” he said. “In a less busy election, I would have been deeply involved in it. Because I don’t think we’re going to change the state until we change the House.”

Calling the state House “a wholly owned subsidiary of the plaintiff’s lawyers and the teachers’ union,” the senator said he plans to work hard to elect a Republican governor in 2015, but pledged not to get involved in the GOP primary.

“I’ve learned my lesson there,” McConnell said, chuckling about his endorsement of Paul’s 2010 primary opponent. “That clearly was a mistake. We all make them, and that’s one if I had to do over again I would.”

McConnell said he believes that former Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration was a setback for the GOP that the next Republican governor can remedy.

“What really threw us off here was Ernie screwing up and getting into trouble,” he said. “If we had had a successful two-term Republican governor, I think we would now be a pretty thoroughly Republican state. I think the voters are there. They’re just waiting to have a really credible, successful governor with eight years, and I think one of these candidates in 2015 could be that person and hold it for eight years, do a good job and hopefully along the way flip the state House as well and make the state more competitive.”

To that end, are Republicans making a mistake by not focusing on finding a strong candidate for state attorney general, who has broad powers to investigate a governor?

“Well, we’re looking for one,” McConnell said with a smile.