Mitch McConnell took off his mask, cleared his throat, and barely smiled — even as he delivered a victory speech following his re-election last week as US senator from Kentucky.
“The greatest of all human powers is competition” Mr McConnell declared, quoting Henry Clay, his political hero and a Bluegrass state native who served as secretary of state in the 19th century.
That message clearly resonates with Mr McConnell. The 78-year old Republican Senate majority leader has emerged as one of America’s shrewdest political operators. He is a master of raw political battles for conservative goals and, through obstruction and opposition, the scourge of liberal legislative dreams.
Mr McConnell had a surprisingly happy election night. Not only did he retain his own seat, as expected, but many down-ballot Republicans outperformed the pre-election polls to hold office, unlike President Donald Trump. As long as GOP candidates prevail in at least one of two run-off contests in Georgia in January, the party will hang on to its majority in the Senate.
This means Democratic president-elect Joe Biden’s agenda would be hostage to Mr McConnell right from the start — sharply complicating his efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. “Biden is going to want a big stimulus package — Mitch is going to be very hesitant to deliver it,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota.
Born in Alabama, Mr McConnell was struck by polio as a toddler while his father was fighting in the second world war. His mother took him to Warm Springs, the Georgia rehabilitation centre favoured by then president Franklin Roosevelt and the experience — which he still brings up — toughened him up for the rest of this life.
“From not being able to walk he went to being a little league baseball player. That all shows his early perseverance and discipline, which he certainly has in droves,” says Gary Gregg, the political scientist who directs McConnell Center at the University of Louisville.
Mr McConnell moved to Louisville — home of the Kentucky Derby — when he was 14 and got his first taste of politics when he successfully ran for president of his high school’s student council. A few years later, he attended the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. By 1974 he was working in the Department of Justice and, in 1984, he was elected to the Senate as a relatively moderate Republican.
As the party shifted to the right over the subsequent decades, Mr McConnell went along with it. After the 2006 midterm elections sent them into the minority, the Republicans chose him as their leader and he has been ever since.
When Barack Obama was elected, Mr McConnell stamped out hopes of bipartisan co-operation with the Democratic White House fairly quickly. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he told the National Journal in 2010.
After Mr Obama was reelected in 2012, Mr McConnell compromised on a tax deal after negotiating it with Mr Biden. But the Kentuckian made himself notorious for his intransigence during Mr Obama’s last year in office. He refused to even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, the president’s choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left open by the sudden death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Once Mr Trump was in office, Mr McConnell, with very limited Democratic support, shepherded through Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and, last month, Amy Coney Barrett on to the highest court. This cemented a conservative majority that could last for a generation — a long-term McConnell goal. “President Trump’s biggest success in office, frankly, has been his judicial nominees. And that is definitely the result of Senator McConnell’s ability to drive and marshal that process,” says Anne Cizmar, professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University.
After divorcing his first wife, with whom he had three children, Mr McConnell married Elaine Chao, now the transportation secretary. He has always preferred backroom deals to political showmanship. Dubbed “Moscow Mitch” by his critics, after he blocked legislation to tighten election security in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 race, Mr McConnell not only brushed off those attacks, but seemed to revel in them — he liked to quip about his other nicknames, “Darth Vader” and “the Grim Reaper”.
He has recently embodied the Republican willingness to tolerate Mr Trump’s more controversial antics. Last week he refused to denounce Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. “Suffice it to say, a few legal inquiries from the president do not exactly spell the end of the republic,” he said.
When he does take up arms, Mr McConnell’s colleagues point out, he gets results, over and over again. “Something I admire most about him is his constant willingness to stand up for conservative principles — even if that means taking the arrows for some of us on his team,” says Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican senator from West Virginia. “He’s very measured and keeps his cards close to his chest, but there’s always a method to his tactics.”
Mr McConnell will undoubtedly be a formidable opponent for Mr Biden. “He’s not an ideologue, his elixir is power. And his power comes from keeping his caucus together against all odds,” says Ms Heitkamp.