This article originally provided by
The Lexington Herald-Leader
October 15, 2006
PRICE TAG POLITICS
Senator's pet issue: money and the power it buys
By John Cheves
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
- In the early 1970s, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr., a young and
intense Republican lawyer, strode into the political science class he taught at
the University of Louisville.
He didn't introduce himself to his students. He went straight to the
chalkboard and scribbled.
"I am going to teach you the three things you need to build a political
party," he said, and backed away to reveal the words: "Money, money, money."
Three decades later, the teacher has mastered the lesson like few in history.
An extraordinary political fund-raiser, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell,
R-Ky., has used his skill to put himself on the brink of a remarkable career
achievement. If Republicans hold the Senate in the Nov. 7 elections, he is
expected to succeed retiring Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee as majority leader.
McConnell's rise to the top of Congress is testament to the power of money in
modern politics. He has raised nearly $220 million over his Senate career; he
spent the majority not on his own campaigns but on those of his GOP colleagues,
who have rewarded him with power.
"He's completely dogged in his pursuit of money. That's his great love, above
everything else," said Marshall Whitman, who watched McConnell as an aide to
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and as a Christian Coalition lobbyist.
A leader in the field of tapping the wealthy for campaign cash, McConnell
also led the opposition against efforts to rein in such donations through
campaign-finance reform -- a fight that has taken him to the U.S. Supreme Court
and put him toe-to-toe against another emerging Republican leader, presidential
A six-month examination of McConnell's career, based on thousands of
documents and scores of interviews, shows the nexus between his actions and his
donors' agendas. He pushes the government to help cigarette makers, Las Vegas
casinos, the pharmaceutical industry, credit card lenders, coal mine owners and
Critics, including anti-poverty groups and labor unions, complain that
McConnell has come to represent his affluent donors at the expense of Kentucky,
the relatively poor state he is supposed to represent. They point, for example,
to his support last year for a tough bankruptcy law, backed by New York banks
that support him.
McConnell waves away all criticism of his fund-raising.
In a recent interview, he said he never allows money to influence him. His
donors support him because they like his pro-business, conservative philosophy,
he said, so it's hardly proof of corruption when he does what they want.
Supporters say, furthermore, that Kentucky benefits from having McConnell at
the top, regardless of criticism over how he got there. McConnell uses his clout
to steer millions of dollars to projects back home, said Steven Law, the
senator's former fund-raising aide, now top deputy to McConnell's wife, Labor
Secretary Elaine Chao.
Once he secured his own Senate seat, McConnell skillfully forwarded money to
GOP senators who needed it, building a path to what he truly wanted -- the No. 1
McConnell is hardly alone in his quest for cash. Money cascades into politics
these days. Senate races burned through $543 million in 2004, up nearly 50
percent from the previous election cycle. And although some argue that the power
of political money can be corrupting -- witness this year's imprisonment of
former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., for bribery -- McConnell has
raised his millions without any evidence of improper personal benefit.
But someone who can raise more than $90 million for his allies -- as
McConnell did twice, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee
-- is golden when it comes time for GOP senators to elect a majority leader.
That's not counting the millions McConnell sends to GOP colleagues from his own
political-action committee and campaign fund.
Some senators shy away from fund-raising duties because of ethical concerns.
Top donors tell senators what they want from upcoming votes, and top donors get
special treatment, said retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. Their calls to Senate
offices are returned first, Simpson said, and their wishes are a priority when
action is taken.
"I didn't enjoy it at all," Simpson said. "I just felt uncomfortable."
Yet McConnell never blinks, Simpson said.
"When he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds," Simpson said.
"He obviously loved it."
McConnell denied that he's more devoted to money than anyone else "in my line
"Building up your finances so you can amplify your voice is critical to any
successful political activity," McConnell said. "It's a central part of the
Still, the symbiosis between McConnell and his donors raises questions about
who's really in charge.
'A choking sensation'
Take his longtime friendship with cigarette-maker lobbyists, revealed in
hundreds of corporate documents made public during litigation. Records suggest a
close working relationship behind the scenes.
They instructed him on smoking-related legislation. He offered to amend bills
on the Senate floor at their direction. During the 1990s, when he attacked the
Food and Drug Administration for its anti-smoking efforts, he followed talking
points they fed him. Their attorneys helped draft a bill he filed to protect
their companies from lawsuits, as well as his correspondence to the White House
to oppose federal smoking-prevention programs.
In turn, they gave him gifts, including Washington Redskins football tickets
and many thousands of dollars in speaking fees to supplement his Senate salary.
They paid for their own voter polls in his 1996 Senate race, to monitor his
But their real support -- millions of dollars in donations -- came between
important Senate votes. The lobbyists assured him: "We will provide maximum help
In 1998, McConnell helped to kill a proposal to curb youth smoking. About
four months later, he called lobbyists at R.J. Reynolds Co. and asked for
$200,000 in corporate "soft money" that he could pass to Republican senators in
elections. In an e-mail exchange, the lobbyists settled on "doing an additional
100,000 to him immediately and then seeing what we have left at end of next
week." The $200,000 was more than their company could swallow at once.
"Are you feeling a choking sensation?" Tommy Payne, vice president of
external relations, asked John Fish, senior director of federal government
affairs, in the final e-mail.
Three months later, rival Philip Morris Cos. sent McConnell $150,000 to
distribute to GOP Senate campaigns and $100,000 for his pet non-profit program,
the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville,
according to industry and college documents.
McConnell helps people who help him, inside and outside Kentucky. Consider
Guardsmark, a Memphis, Tenn., security firm with clients nationwide.
Guardsmark founder Ira Lipman and his employees have given more than $66,000
to McConnell's campaigns. McConnell has described Lipman as a friend whom he
calls to arrange Tennessee fund-raisers.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, demand for private security
boomed. Lipman thought it would be useful for his employees to have access to
the FBI fingerprint database, then available only to law-enforcement agencies.
McConnell co-sponsored the necessary legislation.
"Today our nation is on its way to becoming safer and more secure," Lipman
said in a press release after President Bush signed the bill into law in 2004.
And Lipman credited McConnell.
The Inner Circle
Unlike other senators, McConnell, 64, typically avoids the mass fund-raising
that brings small donations of less than $200 from working-class Americans
through direct mail, phone banks and the Internet.
His donors are likely to start at $1,000. He favors intimate receptions where
he can offer them his full attention, leaning in to listen, saying little,
holding a glass of wine without paying much attention to it. His Rolodex is one
of the best. He is president of the century-old Alfalfa Club, which gathers the
nation's richest and most powerful on the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E.
Lee, for cocktails and filet mignon.
McConnell seldom opens his own wallet. In the past decade, he has given only
$10,000 of his personal funds for campaign donations. Asked to explain that, he
pleaded poverty. In his view, it's wealthier people who support campaigns.
"I don't have a whole lot of money to contribute," said McConnell, whose
Senate salary is $165,200, and who has homes in Louisville and Washington -- the
latter a handsome Capitol Hill townhouse assessed at $1.3 million.
McConnell's invitations to the wealthy to become lifetime members of the
"Senate Republican Inner Circle" ($15,000 for life or $2,000 a year) guarantee
private dinners and valuable briefings with "the men who are shaping the Senate
agenda," including himself, caucus leaders and committee chairmen.
"Americans are big on rewards these days. Financial rewards in the stock
market -- cash rewards on your credit cards -- luxurious rewards in the travel
industry," McConnell wrote in one invitation. "But a special group of Americans
is experiencing one of the greatest reward programs ever, because they took the
initiative to become a Life Member of the Inner Circle."
Those rewards are greatly anticipated by corporate leaders who want a say in
Senate decisions. After the Inner Circle welcomed Geoffrey Bible, chief
executive at Philip Morris, he sent a copy of the announcement to his aides.
"So now I'm in," Bible wrote in the margin. "See if we can make the most of
In an interview, McConnell said his invitations exaggerate the intimacy at
some events in order to get people to write him a check. A major GOP Senate
fund-raiser can draw 1,000 people, he said. No donor ever uses social time with
senators to influence Senate business, he said.
"They want their picture taken with you; that's all it amounts to," he said.
As McConnell's influence grows, so does the value of his company.
Lobbyist Kent Hance organized a reception for McConnell in March at the
Dallas home of oilman R.H. Pickens. Hance said it raised about $50,000 for
McConnell's 2008 re-election from a few dozen investors and executives.
(McConnell spent $5.7 million on his 2002 campaign and already has banked half
that sum for 2008.)
Millionaires and billionaires wanted to hear how McConnell plans to further
cut their taxes, Hance said.
"He's gonna be the next Senate majority leader, so we didn't have to hold a
gun on people to get 'em to attend," Hance said. "Everybody wants to be his
Speaking in 1994 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank,
McConnell explained his fund-raising: "I prefer to get (money) from individuals
who voluntarily choose to give to me because they like what I stand for."
However, because he now raises the majority of his money nationally, not in
Kentucky, it's not uncommon for his donors to know scarcely anything about him,
except that he is a powerful man.
Corporations and professional groups that want a friend in Washington
instruct their employees and members to give generously to the rising senator.
At a New York luncheon last fall, McConnell received about $60,000 from
scores of workers at two financial giants, UBS and Citigroup, which had just
successfully lobbied Senate Republicans for a tough bankruptcy law that makes
life harder for credit card debtors. President Bush praised McConnell by name as
he signed the law.
Christopher Hagstrom, a UBS Financial Services securities lender, said
managers spread the word to write a check to McConnell. His suggested sum was
$1,000, which he gave. Hagstrom said he is barely aware of McConnell, other than
"he has the backing of the guys here."
McConnell has said he encourages donors to send the maximum allowed by law,
then arrange for their families to give, too. Before he takes checks from
minors, he said, "they, of course, have to be signed by the children." (It is
legal for children to give, if they do so willingly and use their own money,
which the Federal Election Commission says is hard to determine.) He gets tens
of thousands from donors identified as "students," usually in sums of $1,000
Pressed for time, McConnell regularly skips daily Senate business. In 2005,
for example, he missed 83 percent of his assigned committee hearings about
government spending and agriculture. He said it's "absurd" to question the
hearings he misses, given his busy leadership schedule. "Every day is a series
of choices about how to spend your time," he said.
However, he attends myriad receptions in Washington and around the country.
These events are scheduled by McConnell's fund-raising office, run by former
banking lobbyist Alison Crombie Kinnahan out of a corporate lobbying firm a
quick walk down the street from McConnell's Capitol office.
McConnell says his coast-to-coast collections are appropriate because he is
no longer a mere Kentucky politician. He is "a United States senator."
Even in Congress, which devotes evenings and weekends to taking money,
McConnell is considered extraordinary.
Not physically: Relatively small in stature and with a pale complexion, he is
formal and reserved. Other senators cultivate a folksy demeanor to connect with
folks back home. Senate aides compare approaching McConnell to meeting a
But he brings in the money. In 2002, GOP senators elected him to their No. 2
post -- majority whip -- after his record-breaking four years as chairman of
their fund-raising machine, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He's
one of only two senators in decades to serve consecutive terms in the grueling
job. In fact, this year, the GOP struggled for months to find anyone to
volunteer as chairman for 2008.
Under McConnell, the NRSC paid off a $6 million debt, said former NRSC aide
Stuart Roy, who later joined Chao's Labor Department. McConnell raised $91
million in one term and $96 million in the next.
He disgusted a few colleagues by focusing on televised attack ads. What
McConnell calls "amplifying your voice," others saw as dragging public debate
into the gutter.
Many politicians sling mud at their opponents. But McConnell is thought
especially brilliant at finding a potential weakness in his opponents, crafting
an attack around it and hammering it home, again and again, with blistering
commercials -- which is where so much of that money goes.
McConnell learned under Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, who handled
paid media for his 1984 campaign and is now the head of Fox News Channel.
Not everyone has blessed the approach.
"This nonsense of savaging your opponent and making their noses grow long and
their ears grow hairy and big, that's something my 6-year-old and 8-year-old
find quite amusing. It's great theater, but I don't know what it does to improve
the culture of politics or governance or leadership in this country," said Sen.
Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., in a 1998 challenge to McConnell's command at the NRSC.
But Republicans stuck with McConnell. He built Senate loyalties by
redirecting millions of dollars he raised through his own PAC, dispensing $5,000
and $10,000 at a time. He pledged this year to send $1 million of his funds to
pay for other senators' races.
"His fund-raising is like a corporation, a booming, full-time business," said
Whitman, the former Republican Senate aide.
"He has people in charge of reaching out to new donors, people in charge of
massaging the old donors and staying in contact with them, and people in charge
of collecting," Whitman said. "This goes on throughout the year, every year."
McCain vs. McConnell
In the Senate, McConnell cast himself as the anti-McCain.
John McCain, the once and future GOP presidential candidate, is a fiery
reformer drawn to television cameras. McConnell, a defender of the status quo,
mocks "reform" efforts with a smirk. He prefers to cut deals in private.
Other senators are wary of butting heads with the media-savvy McCain. Not
McConnell. When McCain's reform proposals displease Republican Party donors,
McConnell outmaneuvers the maverick.
"McConnell is not scared of McCain," said Mark Buse, a former McCain aide for
two decades and now a lobbyist. "Because he knows the (Senate) rules better than
most people, he does very well by them."
They have had epic clashes:
• In 1998, McCain pushed a bill to curb youth
smoking through new tobacco advertising restrictions.
Senators voted it down after a closed-door lunch for Republican senators in
which McConnell -- according to news reports -- told colleagues that cigarette
companies would help them with campaign advertising if they voted against the
Health groups protested that McConnell sold out the nation's youth.
McConnell refused to publicly discuss his luncheon remarks. But the bill did
fail, and federal election records show that cigarette companies poured hundreds
of thousands of dollars through McConnell to Senate GOP campaigns.
• In 2000, McCain pushed a bill to outlaw
gambling on college sports, which is legal only in Nevada.
Among those arguing for the bill was University of Kentucky basketball coach
Tubby Smith, who said Las Vegas bookies legally set the point spreads that form
the basis of illegal betting everywhere else.
McConnell was befriending Las Vegas casinos, which opposed the bill. In 1997,
he and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., flew to Las Vegas on the
corporate jet of Steve Wynn, owner of Mirage Resorts, to kick off a series of
GOP fund-raisers. "We wanted to have support from that industry," McConnell said
They got it. Casinos in the American Gaming Association -- whose chief
lobbyist, D. Brett Hale, is a former McConnell aide -- gave more than $2 million
to the NRSC during McConnell's chairmanship in 1998 and 2000, up from $375,000
for the 1996 races.
McCain's gambling bill easily passed in committee but languished for four
months while he pleaded with Senate GOP leaders to allow a floor vote. They said
they could not find time. When they finally agreed to a vote, Nevada's two
senators -- both Democrats -- were ready to block it with objections. It died.
News reports identified McConnell as one of the senators working against the
bill. McConnell recently denied that.
Doris Dixon, who lobbied the Senate for the bill, said McConnell was part of
the effort to keep it from getting a floor vote. Dixon was then director of
federal relations for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. She said
McConnell and his aides refused even to meet with her side.
"Sen. McConnell was instrumental in blocking it from going forward," Dixon
said. "He was talking to other Republican senators about the problems it would
pose for him as chairman of their fund-raising committee, which was taking money
McConnell had pleased his Las Vegas donors earlier by persuading Sen. Dan
Coats, R-Ind., to withdraw an amendment that would have ended the federal tax
deduction for gambling losses.
The deduction costs the government millions. Coats wanted it replaced with a
deduction for Americans who support scholarship programs for poor children. But
the gambling industry said the deduction was crucial for its biggest bettors.
• Also in 2000, responding to fatal crashes
involving Ford Explorers with Firestone tires, McCain pushed a safety bill to
require automakers to report serious defects to the government or risk
McCain's bill passed in committee but stalled when several senators placed
anonymous "holds" on it, blocking a floor vote. McCain angrily cried, "The fix
is in!" Business groups and Senate GOP leaders backed the shadowy stall tactic.
News reports and McCain's office identified McConnell among the senators
placing a hold.
"I was there, I was intimately involved with lobbying on Sen. McCain's bill,
and Sen. McConnell definitely was actively opposing it," Joan Claybrook,
president of watchdog group Public Citizen, recently said.
McConnell, an advocate of anonymous holds, recently denied placing a hold in
that case. He said he and the Senate voted for McCain's safety bill, and it
However, what really happened -- according to congressional records and
interviews -- is that the Senate killed McCain's bill by blocking the vote. In
its place, the Senate adopted a weaker House bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton,
R-Mich., and supported by the auto industry. McCain reluctantly accepted it as a
Critics said Upton's bill did not require automakers to analyze their data
for evidence of defects, and it allowed government secrecy to keep the public
from learning of safety problems.
McConnell took more than $75,000 from automakers in the five previous years,
according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Ford Motor
Co.'s Washington advocacy team, which spent more than $8 million lobbying in
2000, was led by Janet Mullins Grissom, who was McConnell's first Senate
campaign manager and chief of staff.
People who know McCain and McConnell say they dislike each other. In separate
interviews, the senators were respectful. McConnell said he feels no animosity
over their "terrific battles."
Asked about McConnell, McCain smiled tightly and shrugged. "One thing I've
learned in politics, I try never to look backwards in anger," McCain said. Then
he turned away.
Enemy of reform
Campaign donations by "special interests" corrupt the Senate, Mitch McConnell
warned -- in 1984.
As Jefferson County judge-executive, McConnell challenged incumbent Sen.
Walter "Dee" Huddleston, D-Ky. He flew to a breakfast at Washington's Capitol
Hill Club to ask the major PACs for money.
They refused. They backed Huddleston. So the underdog bit the hands that
wouldn't feed him.
"Huddleston For Sale to the Highest Bidder," accused one of his campaign
press releases attacking the senator's PAC and special-interest money. McConnell
depicted Huddleston as solely concerned about cash.
Within days of his surprise victory, McConnell launched fund-raising for his
1990 re-election, tapping the very Huddleston donors he had criticized. PACs
alone gave him more than $41,000 before he took office.
"There was a lot of atoning to do," lobbyist Benjamin Cooper told the
Herald-Leader during a McConnell fund-raiser, a month after the 1984 election.
In a recent interview, Huddleston said he heard complaints.
"It got back to me pretty quickly," Huddleston said. "Mitch went to the
people who had supported me and told them that if they wanted any kind of
representation in the Senate from this day forward, they had better pony up to
him, starting now. Open your checkbooks."
Not true, McConnell countered. He didn't have to threaten anyone, just
welcome them with open arms. It's common for "special interests" who backed the
loser to switch sides after an election, he said.
"I've always found it a bit amusing," McConnell said. "They all have a right
to support whomever they choose. And when they're not supporting you, you have
every right to complain about it."
McConnell continued publicly warning about corruption while privately raising
as much money as he could for his first decade in the Senate. Democrats, then
the party in power, held the fund-raising advantage. McConnell called for
campaign-finance reform to neutralize their edge.
"The electoral process suffers from real and perceived special-interest
influence," he wrote in a Herald-Leader opinion column in 1990.
Everything changed in 1994. Republicans seized Congress. Money shifted to the
GOP. And in an about-face, McConnell became Washington's fiercest enemy of
For years, he beat back McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., as they tried
to ban unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations, unions and the
wealthy. That opposition became his signature issue. Money equals speech, he
said, so limiting donations is akin to gagging a political protester.
When McCain and Feingold's Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed in 2002,
McConnell called it "stunningly stupid." He sued all the way to the U.S. Supreme
Court to stop it -- and lost.
He resents Republican reform sympathizers.
In 1998, Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., challenged first-term Democratic Sen.
Patty Murray. McConnell's job as NRSC chairman was to assist GOP Senate
campaigns. But Smith called for campaign-finance reform and assailed "the old
boys and the old establishment." McConnell limited her funding to a fraction of
the more than $400,000 he was authorized to provide to her. Smith was defeated.
"We ended up with no money to put on any kind of TV or radio advertising,"
Dale Foreman, who was chairman of the Washington state Republican Party, said
recently. McConnell gave him a frosty reception when he flew east to plead
Smith's case, Foreman said.
"He clearly had strong opinions on campaign-finance reform, and anyone who
disagreed with him, Republican or not, was not going to get any help," Foreman
McConnell denied snubbing Smith because she called for reform. He said she
simply could not win. "She was never in the game," he said. But in McConnell's
NRSC fund-raising material sent to donors before the 1998 election, Murray was
described as "highly vulnerable to defeat."
GOP senators were happy to let McConnell lead the charge against reform,
freeing them from taking a politically risky stand, said Brian Minnich, a
McConnell aide in the 1980s.
McConnell insisted that voters do not care -- "This issue, for average
Americans, ranks right up there with static cling," he said in a public
television interview -- and that was true, at least for Kentucky.
His 2002 election opponent, Lois Combs Weinberg, recently said her polls
showed only five percent of the state's voters objected to McConnell's
opposition to campaign-finance reform.
McConnell's ardent pursuit of money set him apart and made him a leader. He
is baffled by politicians who complain about having to ask for money, said
Minnich, now a lobbyist.
"He wasn't embarrassed by fund-raising," Minnich said. "And he never forgot
the people who helped him. That's key."
'It was thuggish'
Not every donor wants to pay forever. In 1999, a group of prominent corporate
leaders -- including some of McConnell's donors -- led a rebellion against his
fund-raising style. To his great anger, they endorsed reform.
One of them was Edward Kangas, who was worldwide chairman and chief executive
of accounting giant Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu from 1989 to 2000.
Kangas was no purist. In 1995, he and other Deloitte executives put together
about $20,000 for McConnell. Kangas said Deloitte wanted "visibility" as it
lobbied for the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, making it harder for
investors to recover fraud losses. The GOP Congress passed the act over
President Clinton's veto.
Consumer advocates howled, but McConnell backed the act. Arthur Anderson &
Co. -- the accounting firm later disgraced by its role in the Enron Corp. fraud
-- encased a copy of the bill in plastic to keep as a trophy. It also gave
McConnell $3,000 about the time of the Senate vote.
Sending money to politicians on occasion is standard business, Kangas said.
But it began to feel as if whenever Congress met, lawmakers called to mention
upcoming votes that could help or harm Deloitte, he said. And a donation request
"It was a shakedown," Kangas recalled, declining to say whether he
specifically referred to McConnell.
"It's often a regulated industry, like the banks, the financial services
companies, the pharmaceuticals," he said. "An executive gets a call from a
politician -- or someone close to the politician, who everyone knows speaks for
him -- who says, 'Hey, it would be really appreciated if you could show us some
support right now.'"
So Kangas joined other corporate leaders at the Committee for Economic
Development -- a Washington-based business group -- in endorsing the
McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill.
McConnell was outraged. He mailed angry protest letters to CED members and
their companies to warn that their reform advocacy would crimp the income of the
"I would think that public withdrawal from this organization would be a
reasonable response," he wrote. At the bottom, he scrawled personal messages
naming individuals and concluding: "I hope (name) will resign from CED. Mitch."
"Mitch was not completely happy," Kangas said, chuckling.
"It was thuggish," said Charles E.M. Kolb, the CED's president.
Kolb, a White House adviser to the first President Bush and an appointee
under President Reagan, previously had donated to McConnell, but he resented
McConnell's tone. His group stood firm.
"His letters sounded like a heavy-handed threat -- 'Continue to do business
with these guys, and you won't do business with us' -- but it backfired," Kolb
said. "It became a strong piece of evidence as to what's wrong with the system.
It was Exhibit A."
$220 million: Raised for Republicans by Sen. Mitch
McConnell over the past 22 years
$200,000: Donation McConnell requested from R.J.
$2.8 million: Amount McConnell has banked for 2008
Reach John Cheves at (202) 383-6036 or