Mitch McConnell is a fundraising boon for liberal groups

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called Planned Parenthood a “lobbying powerhouse.” (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Every six years, liberal groups proclaim they will take down Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). For three decades, it’s been a failed promise.

With 2020 rapidly approaching, enthusiastic Democratic groups are preparing another run at the Senate Majority Leader’s seat. The powerful Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is recruiting candidates to challenge McConnell. EMILY’s List named McConnell one its top targets. And an unfamiliar PAC is raising money with the sole purpose of defeating him.

Ditch Mitch, a new group dedicated entirely to beating McConnell, has raised more than $500,000 through April with an average contribution of $19, according to its director Ryan Aquilina.

The PAC plans to launch digital and TV ads against McConnell, with its first major ad push coming “very soon.” The group will give substantial funds to whoever emerges as McConnell’s challenger in addition to hitting the Senate Majority Leader. The logic is simple: the Democratic candidate will need all the help they can get early on, as McConnell began planning his reelection back in 2018.

“McConnell starts campaigning early, and he will attack whichever Democrat challenges him,” Aquilina said. “The problem for the Democratic candidate is they have to introduce themselves to voters, fend off attacks from McConnell and hold him accountable, all at once. When a campaign is starting up it’s going to be hard to have the resources to do all three things … that’s where we can help lay the groundwork.”

Ditch Mitch recently launched a campaign to draft Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who ran and lost against Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) in 2018, to help fund a run against McConnell. The campaign comes following reports that the DSCC recruited McGrath to run as his Democratic competitor. The draft campaign would transfer all of its money to McGrath the day she announces, though Ditch Mitch will support whichever Democrat emerges as McConnell’s challenger.

Aquilina noted most polls find that McConnell has grown increasingly unpopular in his home state. McConnell has polled poorly for some time, however that has never translated to wins for Democratic challengers.

“Every cycle since 1990 when McConnell has been up, Democrats have promised to beat him and instead they’ve only ended the careers of more than a couple promising Democrats,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, which rates the race “Likely R.”

That reality may be weighing on potential challengers who haven’t been quick to announce a run. But regardless of who faces McConnell, they will need money. A Democratic challenger hasn’t outraised the longtime incumbent since the dawn of the new millennium.

Running as a moderate businessman with no voting record to criticize, Democrat Bruce Lunsford came relatively close to winning in 2008, garnering 47 percent of the vote. Although Lunsford was aided by $3.5 million in anti-McConnell ads by the DSCC, he ultimately lost while facing a $10 million fundraising deficit.

In 2014, a banner year for Republicans, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Grimes garnered only 41 percent of the vote and was outraised $31 million to $19 million. Outside groups pounced on the race, spending nearly $36 million. This time, however, they were on McConnell’s side — spending $22 million to aid him.

“Dark money” nonprofit Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and the Kentuckians for Strong Leadership super PAC combined to boost McConnell with $14 million in ads. The DSCC spent $3 million to aid Grimes but spent little in the final weeks of the race.

This time around, Democratic groups haven’t wasted any time using McConnell to rally the base. Democratic dark money group Majority Forward attempted to tie Republican senators to McConnell over the government shutdown in a six-figure ad buy — reminiscent of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s appearance with Democratic candidates countless GOP advertisements in 2018.

The DSCC features McConnell in almost all of its fundraising appeals, focusing on his triumphs in confirming Donald Trump’s federal judges and supreme court justices while also derailing Barack Obama’s appointees. The group has run more than 1,100 ads on Facebook mentioning McConnell, according to Facebook’s ad archive.

“I’ve never seen him called out by name as much as I have this time,” Duffy said

Representing a perpetual roadblock to liberal policies and judges, Democratic groups don’t have any trouble raising money in the name of defeating McConnell. But Duffy expressed doubt about whether Democratic groups truly believe they can win in deep red Kentucky.

“I’m not even sure how seriously Democrats are about beating as much as they’d like to distract him,” Duffy said. “The more they can keep him preoccupied at home and the less able he is to help raise money for candidates like Cory Gardner and Susan Collins and the NRSC.”

Ditch Mitch’s Aquilina — formerly of Anne Lewis Strategies, a D.C. digital fundraising consultant that took in $17 million mostly from Democratic Senate campaigns in 2018 — seems to truly believe McConnell can be defeated. The group has already conducted polling that indicates an upset is possible. Aquilina said McGrath’s 2018 fundraising chops and performance in Kentucky’s conservative 6th District make her a strong contender.

Not everybody shares Aquilina and the DSCC’s optimism in McGrath. Kentucky sports radio host Matt Jones, a popular voice in the state despite being an avid Democrat, recently suggested McGrath might not be able to win the statewide race.

Jones has long been rumored to run against McConnell — and once engaged in an on-air debate with the senator — but has not yet declared. As a supporter of abortion rights, it would be an uphill battle for Jones, especially as McConnell and his allies wouldn’t be hard pressed to find evidence of Jones’ progressive views.

“The issue with radio hosts is they tend to say a lot of things,” Duffy said. “McConnell’s campaigns are very thorough … they will go through every transcript, they will find what they need.”

McConnell and the DSCC did not respond to requests for comment.

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