Speaking on the Senate floor on the eve of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation last month, Mitch McConnell struck a contemplative tone.
The Republican Senate majority leader was on track for his third confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice in as many years. But opinion polls suggested his days as the most powerful man in the Senate were numbered, with Democrats favoured to oust several Republican incumbents and take back control of the upper chamber of Congress.
“We have made an important contribution to the future of this country. A lot of what we have done over the past four years will be undone, sooner or later, by the next election,” Mr McConnell said.
Two weeks later, Judge Barrett has been installed on the Supreme Court, more than 150m Americans have voted, and Mr McConnell, 78, is in pole position to hold on to power in the Senate — while acting as a thorn in the side of a Joe Biden White House.
In Kentucky, Mr McConnell was easily re-elected for his seventh six-year Senate term on Tuesday, handily defeating his well-funded Democratic challenger, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, by a 20-point margin. Ms McGrath’s campaign raised a staggering $88m, much of which came from out-of-state Democratic donors determined to oust Mr McConnell.
And while Democrats succeeded in ousting Republican incumbents Martha McSally in Arizona and Cory Gardner in Colorado, Republicans picked up another seat in Alabama, where former college football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated incumbent Doug Jones.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Associated Press had called 31 of the 35 Senate seats that were up for grabs this cycle.
In the remaining races, incumbent Republicans Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Dan Sullivan in Alaska are narrowly favoured to hold on to their seats. In Georgia, under arcane state rules, Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are heading to a run off against Democratic opponents Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, to be held on January 5.
If both Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff win, Democrats will secure the narrowest of majorities in the Senate. But analysts expect those races to end favourably for Republicans, who have historically come out on top in Georgia run-offs. That would give Mr McConnell the narrow edge he needs to hold on to the Senate, and to frustrate Joe Biden and the Democrats from passing any legislation in Congress.
Mr McConnell, who is married to Elaine Chao, the US transportation secretary, has been Senate majority leader since 2015. Before that, he was minority leader for eight years.
As minority leader, he gained a reputation for being an obstructionist, leveraging rules that required 60 votes to confirm appeals court judges to block Barack Obama’s appointees. He doubled down on his efforts to stop Democrats when he took over as majority leader in 2015 in the final years of the Obama administration.
Those efforts reached a peak when he refused to allow hearings on Mr Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy opened by the death of Antonin Scalia. The seat was filled in the first year of the Trump administration by Neil Gorsuch.
After Democrats took back control of the House of the Representatives in the 2018 midterms, Mr McConnell sparked the ire of Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House. Ms Pelosi regularly refers to the Kentucky senator as the “grim reaper” and calls the Senate his “graveyard” for bills passed by the Democrat-controlled House.
Republicans and Democrats alike say it is unlikely that Mr McConnell, widely seen as a master technician with a tight grip on his caucus, will change tack in the next Congress.
“With the exception of a Covid relief bill and maybe an infrastructure bill, it is hard to see where, legislatively, the Biden administration will have success,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
“The Democrats had plans to do a much bigger Covid relief bill,” he added. “They were talking about the Affordable Care Act, climate change, doing something on taxes, nixing the filibuster, expanding the Supreme Court, potentially. Those are all off the table.”
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime aide to former Senate majority leader, Harry Reid — who was Mr McConnell’s Democratic counterpart for eight years — was even more bearish, noting the majority leader could also block Mr Biden’s cabinet appointments, which require Senate confirmation.
“This is not my first rodeo. I saw [Mr McConnell] start from day one during the Obama administration, in the era of hope and change, do everything he can to defeat him,” he said. “Nothing has changed, and I expect him to do the same thing to Biden.”
“[McConnell] stands for very little except for power’s sake . . . he is not someone who bows to the whims of popular pressure,” Mr Manley added. “If he thinks that it is in his party’s interest to block anything from getting passed in the Biden administration, he will do it, just like he did with Obama.”