Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) fingerprints are all over the government shutdown fiasco. The Senate minority leader voted in support of closing the government, and he then brokered a deal with Democrats to open it back up again.
With a dismal approval rating, McConnell already faced a tricky re-election path in 2014. And given how voters overwhelmingly opposed the shutdown and Republicans' handling of it, McConnell's dual roles in the mess could boost his opponents on both the right and left.
At first glance, a poll out Thursday from Democratic pollster PPP appeared to show just that, as it found McConnell trailing his likely Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, by a 45-43 percent split. In addition, the poll found that 48 percent of voters said they were less likely to support McConnell for re-election because of his role in the shutdown.
However, Grimes' lead remained within the poll's margin of error. And her edge remained virtually unchanged from August when PPP found her leading the race 45-44 percent, suggesting she had failed to capitalize on the shutdown's negative headlines.
The latest survey also found that even when respondents were given a prompt noting McConnell's involvement in the shutdown, it didn't move the needle in Grimes' favor; with that wording, Grimes led 47-45 percent, again a two-point gap.
Meanwhile, McConnell had an enormous lead over his Tea Party-aligned primary challenger, Matt Bevin, as of August. Though there is no recent polling on the contest, the shutdown alone is unlikely to wipe out a 40-point lead overnight.
Still, Grimes and Bevin — is sure to wield the shutdown as a weapon as the campaign rolls on, hoping it resonates with voters through repetition. Both on Wednesday leapt to criticize McConnell's role in ending the impasse, a potential preview of the refrains we'll see from them over the coming months.
Grimes said it was "an embarrassment that McConnell waited until the 11th hour" to strike a deal. On the other side, Bevin accused him of having "negotiated the GOP surrender."
"When the stakes are highest, Mitch McConnell can always be counted on to sell out conservatives," Bevin said in a statement. It probably didn't help McConnell, then, that Democrats rushed to publicly bear-hug him for helping them out. (McConnell is surely thanking them for all their kind words.)
Further, the Senate compromise included nearly $3 billion for a dam project in Kentucky. Though senators from California and Tennessee added the provision to the final deal, McConnell "has been its historical champion," according to BuzzFeed's John Stanton.
Whether the earmark was inserted to reward McConnell or not, it certainly looked bad. Bevin called the deal "rotten," while the Senate Conservatives Fund, which opposed the full package, labeled it the "Kentucky Kickback," and said it was "an insult to Kentucky families."
The Senate Conservatives Fund is a prime example of McConnell's struggles to court the right. The group called McConnell a "turncoat" and accused him of committing "the ultimate betrayal" for supporting a procedural vote to fund the government without gutting ObamaCare — even though that vote merely prevented a filibuster, and he voted against the bill's final passage.
Ultimately though, time is on McConnell's side. It's a long way to the first votes of the 2014 election cycle, and by then the shutdown "will all seem like a bad dream," wrote the Washington Post's Ezra Klein.
If the GOP again threatens to shut down the government — there's another funding fight looming for January, and a debt ceiling showdown one month later — it would likely weigh him down. McConnell, though, has said another shutdown is "off the table."
His opponents could certainly try to frame the shutdown as a case study of McConnell's flaws. But whether that argument will truly resonate months from now, when it didn't even register during the shutdown's darkest days, seems unlikely.
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