WASHINGTON – Senator Mitch McConnell has long been a leading advocate of a political role for American business, praising his participation and, most importantly, his money. So it came as a surprise to many this week when he shouted scandal over Major League Baseball and companies like Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines jumping into the fray against Georgia’s new voting restrictions.
“If I were running a big company, I would stay out of politics,” said Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, while warning of the “consequences” for the private sector if he sided with the Democrats and the “far left mobs” opposing new limits on access to the ballot box.
Democrats quickly grilled Mr. McConnell, noting that he had personally flourished through unlimited, undisclosed corporate donations to Republican political efforts.
“He has no problem getting everyone to come out in favor of Trump’s tax cuts,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who has long fought Mr. McConnell over the disclosure of donations. “He has no problem with them pushing laws to discourage unions. When they weigh in on behalf of voters, it crosses a line. “
On Wednesday, Mr. McConnell admitted to failing to communicate.
“I didn’t say that very cleverly yesterday,” he said at an event in Paducah, Ky., Where he insisted that business critics were misinformed and were acting on distorted representations of Georgian law provided by no less a figure than President Biden. “They certainly have the right to get involved in politics,” he said. “So my complaint about CEOs: read this damn bill.”
His misstep aside, it’s no surprise that Mr McConnell, who built his political image on tackling campaign finance restrictions, is taking on the role of Enemy No.1 in an overhaul of the campaign spending and a voting rights expansion bill pushed by Mr. Biden and the Democrats in Congress.
In meetings with colleagues, speeches and media appearances, he has denounced the broad plan he sees as an existential threat to the future of his party, a plan he claims is based on a ” big lie ”that Republicans in Georgia and other states are using. racist tactics reminiscent of the Jim Crow era to limit the vote.
The phrase – the same that Democrats have used to describe former President Donald J. Trump’s misrepresentation of election theft – suggests that Mr McConnell is considering a large-scale effort to define the bill on the right to vote as corrupt and as a blatant takeover.
“Our challenge, of course, is that they’re going to do that one way or another on the race, they’re going to do that on the run one way or another,” McConnell said. in an interview. “It’s not one or the other. This is a partisan effort to rewrite the rules in a way they believe benefits them. “
Democratic legislation in Congress aims to counter laws like Georgia’s and proposals from other Republican-led states to tighten voter eligibility and access to the ballot box after the loss of Mr. Trump. Many Republicans attribute his defeat to changes imposed by the pandemic last year, including easier voting by mail and extended early voting, and the inability to enforce strict voter verification. They rush to tighten up to avoid a repeat.
Mr McConnell called out the reach of the Congressional Voting Bill – which would change the way local elections are conducted, limit undisclosed funds, strengthen campaign law enforcement and affirm Washington’s jurisdiction over statewide redistribution, among other fundamental changes. “
“To give them credit,” he said of the Democrats, “they haven’t forgotten a single thing that they think would benefit them and put us at a disadvantage.”
Mr. McConnell’s obsession with campaign rights dates back to before he sat in Congress, when he taught a political science course at the University of Louisville in the 1970s. followed, he carved out a position as a party spokesperson, and at times lonely, against stricter campaign laws.
Many fellow Republicans shared his point of view, but were unwilling to be as public as Mr McConnell on an issue some considered politically problematic. His work on campaign rules helped him become leader of the Senate.
“It’s something that is close to my heart,” he said. “I was interested in it for most of my life before I even got to the Senate.”
He celebrated that his opponents in previous campaign finance fights called him Darth Vader – the dark force opposed to a more responsible system. He took Senator John McCain, his fellow Republican from Arizona, to the Supreme Court in 2003 in a losing fight to overturn the law that bore Mr. McCain’s name. But Mr McConnell felt justified when the composition of the tribunal changed and much of the law was overturned in the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Mr McConnell says the dispute is over the protection of speech rights and the First Amendment under the Constitution. But for his opponents – and there are many – it’s a matter of political might, and Mr McConnell is making sure the money he depends on continues to flow to protect his position in the Senate.
“He was very focused on maintaining power,” said Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin who shared the headliner of the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign legislation to which Mr. McConnell sided. is fiercely opposed. “He would tell you he cares about this for First Amendment reasons, but the truth is he likes to access as many undisclosed contributions as possible to maintain his position as the majority leader.”
Democrats say Mr McConnell finds himself playing defense this time around, as evidenced by the fact that some of his usual corporate allies are abandoning him.
“For once in his political life, business is on the opposite side of an issue with him,” Van Hollen said.
Unlike past clashes, however, Mr McConnell appears to have the full support of his fellow Republicans, who are collectively outraged by the Democratic initiative.
“He’s very committed to this area,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the senior Republican on the Rules Committee, which is reviewing the Democratic bill. “He understands the constitutional and structural danger and the irreversible potential of these kinds of changes.”
With the momentum for action in Washington stemming from what Democrats see as unwarranted Republican repression in the states, Mr McConnell and Mr Blunt are targeting what they believe to be distortions and exaggerations about the law. from Georgia. Mr McConnell is keen to point out that fact-checkers criticized Mr Biden for misunderstanding certain aspects of Georgian law.
“If you look at the current law, it actually expands voting rights,” said McConnell, who also noted that Georgians would have more opportunities to vote under the new statute than residents of many other states who are not subject to a corporate boycott.
While there is disagreement over the effect of specific provisions of voting changes in Georgia and proposals put forward elsewhere, Democrats and independent election experts say efforts in the name of electoral integrity are aimed at limiting voting opportunities, especially for minorities who tend to favor Democrats.
Mr. McConnell disputed this idea.
“People are not denied the right to vote anywhere in America,” said Mr. McConnell, who noted that the turnout for the presidency last year was the highest since 1900. “No one should buy this notion that it is sort of the suppression of voters. They also play the race card, which shows how desperate they are to shame people for voting for this monstrosity.
Despite all his opposition, Mr McConnell does not rule out that Democrats could push forward the initiative, which would require a rule change to overcome a Republican filibuster and his 60-vote requirement to move forward. Even if it becomes law, Mr McConnell has indicated he will be the first to attempt to overturn it in front of a more sympathetic audience.
“Hopefully the political discourse and the First Amendment will prevail in a more neutral format – in the courts,” he said. “Thankfully we’ve had good judgment, I think, from the whole justice system over the years, which has kept us from doing the kinds of things they’re trying to do.