POLITICS
11/03/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Eight Things You Probably Didn't Know About Mitch McConnell And Kentucky

A year ago, before Sen. Mitch McConnell knew the name of his Democratic opponent in this year's race, The Huffington Post traveled across Kentucky attempting to assess the Senate minority leader's impact on his home state. McConnell is a master strategist and an extremely effective fundraiser. But after 30 years in Washington, what has he accomplished for Kentucky? What has all his clout done for the people there?

Last year HuffPost delved into McConnell's legacy at length -- you can read all 15,000 words here. In the final hours of his tight contest against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, we wanted to share some key insights from that reporting. McConnell isn't just another Washington obstructionist. He's a much more complicated politician than he'd like you to believe.

1. McConnell Has Given Away A Lot Of Free Health Care

McConnell has been a little tongue-tied about what should happen to Kynect, the Kentucky edition of Obamacare. That may be because he knows how badly people in his state need access to health insurance.

While he criticizes the president's program for providing "free health care" to people, McConnell has supported quite a bit of that himself -- from free cancer treatment for uranium enrichment plant workers in Paducah to dental care and pregnancy counseling in Madisonville. McConnell's government-funded programs haven't had anything close to Obamacare's effect on Kentucky: More than 330,000 Kentuckians have qualified for Medicaid thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and more than 80,000 have obtained health coverage through Kynect, the state's insurance exchange. But by earmarking funds for the occasional small program, McConnell has won votes among Kentucky's low-income residents.

2. McConnell Used To Be Liberal

If you went to college or law school with him, he could have been your idealistic friend. McConnell made a point of witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington and rallied for civil rights on campus. Later as a staffer for Sen. Marlow Cook (R), he worked on the unsuccessful effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. During Watergate, he argued in favor of campaign finance reform. He even used the word "progressive" as a compliment.

3. He Tried To Protect The Environment In The Past

As the county judge-executive for Jefferson County, Kentucky, over three decades ago, McConnell added nearly 2,000 acres to the Jefferson Memorial Forest. His administration also replaced trees uprooted by a tornado. "He was always willing to support green things if you made a good case for it," said Meme Sweets Runyon, who worked in his administration.

4. McConnell Loves Redneck-sploitation Ads

McConnell rarely even tries to shake off the persona of a bored banker who will probably reject your loan application. Except when he is running for office. A tradition of his campaigns is to run ads that make "Hee Haw" look like Ingmar Bergman. In these ads -- which have frequently featured animals in pivotal roles -- McConnell pits down-home Southerners against Washington city slickers. Often the spots offer a decidedly populist economic bent, which is at odds with much of his own congressional record.

Some of these ads do exhibit a sense of humor. His famous "hound dog" attack against Dee Huddleston from 1984 holds up well, although it was totally misleading. (Huddleston had one of the best attendance records in Congress, but the ad portrays him as being so absent that a crew of hound dogs couldn't track him down.)

But McConnell ads from 1996 against challenger (and future governor) Steve Beshear are just bizarre exercises in redneck-sploitation:

5. Failing Industries Are Hurting McConnell

McConnell was able to win the loyalty of unionized workers in Paducah despite ignoring radiation problems at their uranium enrichment plant for decades. He pitched himself as the one man who could maneuver the Senate to keep the plant open as similar facilities were shuttered, and he did, in fact, keep the plant working for decades after its expiration date with federal money and complicated deals with regulators. When poisoned workers became a national scandal in 1999, McConnell also created a new health care entitlement program for sick and former employees. (He boasted about that program in a political ad just this January.) But the plant finally closed down this year, and Grimes has pounced, trying to turn McConnell's old strength into a liability.

6. He Flung Open The Door To Money In Politics

McConnell doesn't just defend the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision; he has been a driving force behind the whole legal movement attacking campaign finance regulation. He spearheaded the argument that electoral purchasing power is political speech protected by the First Amendment. He filed a challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And he founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech in Indiana with conservative lawyer James Bopp, who would eventually bring the Citizens United case that opened the super PAC floodgates. When U.S. News & World Report ran a headline calling McConnell the "Darth Vader" of campaign finance reform, he had it framed and hung in his office.

7. Kentucky Is Really, Really Poor

Only five states have a higher poverty rate than Kentucky, and only four have a lower median household income. The number of babies born addicted to drugs in Kentucky jumped by nearly 1,100 percent between 2001 and 2011. Certain counties in the state have infant mortality rates higher than those of "third world countries," according to a March 2013 report from the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

For the story last year, HuffPost interviewed Kentucky resident Shelia Calladine, who had worked for years as a bartender but was then out of work and living in an old school bus behind a church. She never had decent health care and had nearly died from a diabetic coma because she couldn't afford insulin.

HuffPost wrote of her predicament: "McConnell's earmarks never shone their short-term hope on Calladine. Somewhere, maybe a county away, they found some other down-on-their-luck souls and taught them about turkey bacon or pulled a dead tooth from their rotting gums. But the senator never chose what his state truly required: comprehensive solutions to, instead of temporary patches over, the gaping holes in Kentucky's health care system."

8. Kentucky Once Had Real Republican Statesmen

Before McConnell came Sens. Cook and John Sherman Cooper. Both were iconoclasts, and both helped McConnell early in his rise to power. But he turned out to be nothing like either one.

HuffPost wrote last year that Cooper had "helped draft the first legislation for federal education aid, had fought school discrimination and had been a co-sponsor of the bill that created Medicare."

Cooper was an eloquent defender of government health care. "I noticed that the old country doctors and the country officials -- people who had been out in the country and had seen the plight of the people who live in the hollows and down the dirt roads -- they were for it," he told reporters in 1972. "And I remembered my experiences as county judge in Pulaski County, when I'd go out in the county and see these people -- desperate, hungry, sick and nowhere to turn, and no one to help them except the old country doctors. You just can't let people go hungry. You can't just let them lie there sick, to die. Not in this country. Not with all we've got."

Cook fought for women's rights. Now retired and living in Florida, he expressed disappointment in McConnell.

"When you go to Washington, you make your record," Cook said. "Nobody else makes it for you. And the record that he has made, he has to be comfortable with or he wouldn't be there. ... A man makes the reputation he gets. Mitch has to be satisfied. If I were there and I were in that position, I would not be satisfied."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians have qualified for Medicare thanks to the Affordable Care Act. They have qualified for Medicaid.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
Mitch McConnell & Alison Lundergan Grimes
CONVERSATIONS