Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski Saw Mitch McConnell coming, and she was not happy about it. The Republican leader was making his way between the mahogany desks on the Senate floor in February, trying to drum up just five GOP votes to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for zero concessions on spending from the White House.
For Republicans, it was a brutal vote, a cave to the President and an insult to the Tea Party. And Murkowski suspected McConnell had no intention of voting for it himself, not this year. His position back in Kentucky had become perilous. Just days earlier, a local newspaper poll found that 32% of his state’s voters approved of his job performance, an approval rating 2 points lower than the same poll gave President Obama. Polls also showed a dead heat between McConnell and the Democrat he hoped to face in November, a situation made no easier by a Tea Party primary challenger’s attacking him as an ideological wimp. At the age of 72, after 29 years in office and on the cusp of potentially becoming majority leader this fall, McConnell had never been more powerful in Washington or less loved where it mattered: back home.
His strategy for dealing with the situation was as obvious as it was cagey: avoid the toughest fights and delegate the hardest issues to his deputies. He hadn’t met with his Democratic counterpart, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, all year. He had shifted legislative negotiations to other Republicans even on issues like immigration reform where he usually was at the forefront. To woo Tea Party conservatives, he was the only leader to oppose authorizing a military strike on Syria, called for more regulation for the Federal Reserve and pushed a pilot program on industrial hemp (a pet issue for libertarian-minded activists).
But it wasn’t enough. The debt-ceiling increase had to pass, or the nation risked default, and McConnell was responsible for making it happen. So he held open the 15-minute vote, wandering through the chamber in an Irish green tie, asking for volunteers. That was when Murkowski confronted him, according to three people who witnessed the event. She told him point-blank she was tired of taking tough votes for leadership while he gave himself a pass. He had to lead.
An hour later, McConnell did just that. Murkowski watched him cast his vote before she cast her own. And then came the pain. Within days, McConnell’s Tea Party primary challenger, Matt Bevin, had an ad running on Kentucky airwaves. “Mitch McConnell betrayed conservatives to give Obama a blank check,” it declared.
A Bluegrass Revolt?
It’s become a standard Ritual for the nation’s most powerful politicians to find themselves twisting, begging, groveling and backtracking now that voters hate what they do (or don’t do) in Washington. Utah Republican Bob Bennett, then a member of McConnell’s leadership team, lost his primary for a fourth term in 2010. Former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar lost his bid for a sixth term in 2012 after it turned out he didn’t even maintain a residence in Indiana. These challenges came in the shadow cast by former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, who in 2004 became the first leader in 52 years to lose re-election. The skills that make for a great leader–taking a backseat to promote others, a talent for compromise and a Machiavellian ruthlessness–are the antithesis of what makes for a good candidate back home. Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that the longer leaders stay in D.C., the less adroit they seem to become on the campaign trail. “I’m mystified at how some of these leaders ever got elected in the first place,” he says.
Unlike some of his predecessors, McConnell isn’t pretending to be a great campaigner or even a very good one. Instead, he is doubling down on the I’m-the-devil-you-know argument and betting it will work fine. “There’s just been a whole variety of things that I have been able to do for the state in the position that my colleagues have chosen me for,” McConnell said in an interview in March. “My opponent would be a new face: no change, the same majority leader, the same approach. If we’re focusing on the country writ large, the only way to begin to change is to change the Senate and put me in charge of setting the agenda instead of Harry Reid.”
Kentucky is marbled with reminders of McConnell’s ability to bring home the bacon. The state GOP headquarters is named for him, as are the University of Louisville’s Center for Political Leadership, the Mitch McConnell Plaza in Owensboro and the River Walk at Mitch McConnell Park in Bowling Green. Back in Washington, his colleagues hold him in even higher regard. “He’s the grumpy uncle that we don’t embrace at family parties,” says Bennett, “but when there are family squabbles, he’s the wise old uncle that everyone turns to.”
Even the White House, sometimes. It was McConnell who made the late-night phone calls to Vice President Joe Biden to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and who came up with the brilliant legislative pretzel that allowed Republicans to grant Obama debt-ceiling raises later that year in exchange for a series of politically painful show votes. His skills as a backroom operator, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once suggested, could bring peace to Syria. “McConnell is a master dealmaker.”
But clout in D.C. may matter less than votes in Kentucky. Brenda Baumler, 58, a real estate agent from Louisville, grew up voting for McConnell. On a rainy March afternoon, though, she found herself at an event for Bevin. “Mitch McConnell’s too Washingtonized,” she explained. “He’s out of touch. He’s been there too long. He’s become part of the machine, beholden to lobbyists’ views. We put him there, and he’s not empathetic to why he’s there.”
This malaise is evident all across the state. Bevin has advertised all 750-plus of his town halls online and stays for hours to answer every last question. And he proudly notes in every speech that he’s driven 40,000 miles across Kentucky in the nine months he’s been campaigning. McConnell, by comparison, holds many events in secret: invitation-only affairs with select supporters, often closed to the media or carefully choreographed. He displays little feel for voters and obvious discomfort in crowds. Childhood polio has left him resistant to backslapping and handshakes, and a hearing problem makes it seem as if he often ignores people in crowds. At a Calloway County dinner in mid-March, McConnell came in flanked by his security detail and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who’d flown in to be his wingman. “You’re looking at the guy who’s going to change the Senate with a new majority and take America in a new direction,” McConnell told the audience. He then made a low-key exit without working the room.
Enter Laughing–or Packing
It is a measure of McConnell’s seriousness that he hired Jesse Benton, a longtime strategist for former Representative Ron Paul and his son Rand, to manage his campaign. It was an odd pairing. McConnell tried to crush Tea Party favorite Rand Paul’s candidacy in 2010 and blamed Tea Party insurgents for costing Republicans the Senate majority in 2010 and 2012. Soon the awkwardness of the pairing burst into public view. Benton, who is married to one of Ron Paul’s granddaughters, was caught on tape several months into the job saying he was “holding my nose” through the McConnell campaign to help position Rand Paul for a presidential run. When the tape leaked in August 2013, McConnell couldn’t afford to fire Benton. Instead, the pair posted a picture online of Benton holding his nose with one hand, his other arm around a smiling McConnell.
Such antics have become a key element of his campaign. McConnell, who collects cartoons of himself that he hangs in his Senate office, likes to play up mockery of himself as much as he tries to play off embarrassments. Not everyone always gets his sense of humor. Last April at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama told a joke about McConnell’s lack of charm. “Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” went the punch line. McConnell responded by posting an awkward picture of himself with his jacket off, BlackBerry holstered at his hip, sitting cross-legged at a bar with a glass of beer–waiting for Obama.
Last month at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, McConnell took the stage waving a vintage rifle. “He didn’t look at home with a gun, and I can’t remember any occasion where I’ve seen or heard of McConnell shooting,” says Al Cross, who covered McConnell for more than 15 years at the Courier-Journal in Louisville and now teaches at the University of Kentucky.
Given his long-standing ties to the state, his preparation for a tough campaign (Daschle realized the danger too late) and his $11 million war chest, the smart money still gives McConnell the edge to win in a year likely to favor Republicans. A fifth and last term as majority leader would enable a man who decided in elementary school that his dream was to be Senate majority leader a chance to shut down the Obama agenda once and for all. “As the President has said on repeated occasions, I’m his biggest problem,” McConnell notes with pride. A McConnell-run Senate could mean a host of filibusters and vetoes in Obama’s last two years in office.
That said, McConnell tells TIME that if Republicans win the Senate, he’ll govern like George Mitchell, the former Democratic majority leader, who, it should be noted, drove George H.W. Bush crazy in 1991 and ’92. “I’m talking about style here, not substance,” McConnell says. “I think he treated everyone with respect.” Until then, though, McConnell knows better than most what it feels like to get none of that.
This appears in the April 21, 2014 issue of TIME.