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McConnell Shows Senate Staying Power Despite Unpopularity

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell surpasses Bob Dole on Tuesday as the longest serving Republican leader in Senate history — and he is showing no indication he's ready to call it quits.

McConnell, 76, has served in Senate GOP leadership for the better part of the past two decades. He was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm, during the 1998 and 2000 elections. Shortly after, he was elected Majority Whip, the number two leadership job, and then he succeeded former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as the top leader after the 2006 elections.

McConnell has been re-elected leader without opposition by his Senate GOP colleagues every two years since. For most of his tenure, he served as minority leader, until Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, elevating McConnell to the job he holds to this day.

The Kentucky Republican now hits 12 years as his party's top leader in the Senate. Dole held the position of Republican Leader in the Senate for 11 years before stepping down to focus full time on his 1996 run for President. Montana Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield holds the record as the longest serving Senate Majority Leader, serving 16 years from 1961 to 1977.

A master of the inside-game of the Senate, McConnell has been able to maintain an iron grip on his leadership job even though he is deeply unpopular among Democrats, much of the conservative Tea Party grassroots and a majority of his constituents back home in Kentucky.

McConnell's dutiful attention to the needs of his rank and file and his dogged efforts to hold the majority have inoculated him from the same kind of internecine tension on the other side of the U.S. Capitol that led to the early resignation of former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the ongoing speculation that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., could meet the same fate.

Even with the Senate GOP majority potentially at stake in this November's election, this is virtually no doubt inside the Capitol that McConnell will stay on as Republican leader in the next Congress.

McConnell's staying power continues to roil his critics, who see him as a driving force in the polarization of politics. Frequent McConnell antagonist Norm Ornstein told Slate in 2017 that the thing that frustrates him most about McConnell is the perception that he is a "man of the Senate" and an institutionalist. "The notion that that has ever been true is highly questionable, and the notion it has been true over the last decade is farcical," Ornstein said, "This is a guy who blew up the Senate in the Obama years and did more to blow up the norms than any three or five majority leaders before him put together."

McConnell remains unapologetic about his decision to block Senate consideration of President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during the 2016 presidential campaign — and then later to champion the Senate rules change to make it easier to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the court for President Trump.

His maneuvering delivered an early victory to Trump and to the party's conservative base. The GOP grassroots has been at odds with McConnell for years, in part because he's emblematic of a party establishment they loathe and also because he's worked hard to defeat insurgent grassroots challenges in Senate GOP primaries.

Even in Kentucky, McConnell is deeply unpopular. In 2014, Democrats saw their best opportunity in years to take on McConnell where his favorability rating rarely rose above 20 percent. While polls showed the race was close against Democratic candidate Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, he beat her by 15 percentage points.

McConnell still ranks as the most unpopular senator in the country, according to polling by Morning Consult. Their most recent data showed just 34 percent of Kentuckians approve of their senator, while 52 percent disapprove.

McConnell is next up for reelection in 2020 when he will be 78 years old seeking another six-year term. His allies say he is currently intent on running again, and that he intends to remain leader if he does.

The bigger question may not be whether McConnell will remain leader, but whether it will be in the majority, or the minority.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.