One of the most closely watched Senate races in 2014 happened in Kentucky, where long serving Republican Mitch McConnell, who was the minority leader of the Senate, was in a very close contest against his Democratic challenger, Alison Grimes. The stakes were enormous in this election, not just for McConnell but for the national Republican Party which had a chance to take majority control of the Senate after 8 years in the minority. Ultimately McConnell won the election, and the Republicans gained enough seats to take the majority, making him the likely Majority leader of the Senate in the 114th Congress.
That the contest was thought to be so close reflects core elements of Kentucky politics, namely strong party ties combined with loyal constituency support. McConnell would do well to look back in time at the career of one of his predecessors, Joseph C.S. Blackburn, a Democrat who served at a time when state legislatures still chose U.S. Senators. Blackburn’s electoral history would also be a warning sign to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) who has called for repealing the 17th Amendment which provided direct elections of U.S. senators, and returning Senate elections to the halls of state legislatures. What Blackburn’s electoral path shows is that state legislatures were as partisan and conflicted as any electoral venue could be, especially in Kentucky. Blackburn, like McConnell, constructed a political career steeped in partisanship and constituency service, and also faced threats to his power base from divisions within his own party. The case study below, written with research assistants Nhat-Dang Do and Jenna Ray, draws parallels between the two powerful U.S. Senators from Kentucky who served more than 100 years apart, but still relied on the same fundamentals to build and sustain their careers.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is the Republican minority leader in the United States Senate. McConnell has crafted a nearly 30 year career characterized by his toughness, ability to organize, and his reputation as the Senate’s GOP strongman. McConnell’s main goal as the party leader was to secure control of the U.S. Senate for the Republicans in 2014, but to do that, he had to secure his own reelection. That goal was challenging because the senator found himself in a tight political position. In recent years, McConnell has grappled with divisions in his own party that threaten his longstanding dominance in Kentucky politics; notably the rise of the Tea Party movement and the election of one of its favorite champions, Rand Paul (R-KY) to the Senate in 2010 after he defeated the establishment GOP – and McConnell’s – preferred candidate in the Republican primary. Although McConnell has since developed a working relationship with Rand Paul, he has not gained the trust of ultra-conservative Tea-Partiers, who are angry with his willingness to negotiate with the other side and with his perceived insider status in Washington, D.C. Coupled with the Democratic Party’s zeal in ending his political career, and a highly qualified challenger in Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, Mitch McConnell faced one of his most competitive reelection campaigns of his career. Regardless, this battle-hardened veteran of Capitol Hill did not concede easily to his opponents. A thorough analysis and study of McConnell’s career reveals him to be pragmatic, adaptable and willing to do almost anything to win.
McConnell’s political career started officially in 1984 when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate. Unofficially, McConnell has been building his political credentials since 1964 as a student leader at the University of Louisville, where he promoted the civil rights work of Martin Luther King Jr. McConnell gained his initial exposure to politics as first an intern for Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper and next as the chief legal assistant to Marlow Cook; both senators were progressives who worked during a period of Democratic supremacy. Indeed McConnell inherited this progressive strain, working to support collective bargaining rights during his time as the judge-executive of Jefferson County. Over time, as Kentucky turned more conservative, so did McConnell which reflected his pragmatic approach to politics. McConnell systematically helped build the GOP in Kentucky during his period as the county judge-executive by helping his party gain seats within the state. Through his party building activities, he quickly became the de facto leader of the Republican Party in Kentucky. In 1985 McConnell took his seat in the Senate and joined the party leadership in 2002. As the party whip, McConnell earned his stripes as a top-down approach to establishing party unity. Soon after that he reached the top leadership as the Republican Leader in 2006, a position he still holds. McConnell’s career is characterized by his strong ability to organize and build his party, and to be at the forefront of the opposition to the Democrats who control the Senate.
An important facet of Mitch McConnell’s thirty-year career is his ability to connect and gain strong support from his constituency. Although McConnell is worth millions, his constituency still regards him as “one of their own.” McConnell has been able to meticulously construct an image of himself as a true rural Kentuckian. He is able to understand what drives his constituents, from coal miners to farmers to plant workers, and particularly what issues are important to them. His many aids and campaign workers often note McConnell’s special ability of relating to his constituents.
In fact, aside from major legislation concerning spending and budget agreements, McConnell sponsors bills in support of farming, coal, and other important industries in Kentucky. McConnell has spearheaded an initiative to protect the coal industry from government regulations which he dubbed the “War on Coal.” In various bills, such as S. 2414 “Coal Protection Act” and S.1514 “Saving Coal Job Act”, McConnell has signaled his support for this major industry in his state. Not only that, McConnell has proven that he is willing to find ways to support the job security of his constituency. In the city of Paducah, West Kentucky there was a uranium enrichment plant that was a source of employment for the majority of the city and its surrounding areas. Its economic reach was vast across the county, helping to support businesses that served the employees of the plant. McConnell did much to help the plant survive by securing federal earmarks and working deals with the Department of Energy. However, the plant turned out to be poisonous for its workers and surrounding neighbors, something McConnell did not acknowledge for more than a decade. Finally, when it was clear that workers became ill from the plant, McConnell secured a billion dollar federal program to compensate the workers and their families, and as a good politician would, took full credit for assisting those families.
McConnell’s ability to connect with his constituency and his legislative record and actions in supporting them has won him easy reelection rides in previous years. However, in 2014, McConnell faced a different electoral environment in Kentucky which challenged him both from the right and the left ends of the political spectrum. For most of the campaign, polls showed the race in a statistical dead heat, with Grimes slightly ahead 46-44. Although McConnell has tried to connect Grimes to President Obama who is highly unpopular in Kentucky, she managed to carve out an independent campaign and challenge the sitting incumbent’s responsiveness to his home state. With less than a month left in this campaign, McConnell was left hoping that the national tide leaned in the GOP’s favor and would carry him back into office for a 6th term; Grimes hoped that her home grown Kentucky roots would trump his perceived Washington clout.
The long tradition of partisan politics and constituent service is a core component of Kentucky politics, both on the Republican and the Democratic sides of the aisles. McConnell’s 19th century predecessor, Joseph C. S. Blackburn (D-KY) had a career that illustrates the ways in which building up political capital within the party organization is a crucial ingredient to statewide success, whether state legislatures or the people are voting to elect their U.S. Senator. Blackburn’s history also serves as an omen to McConnell that divisions within the party can defeat even the strongest incumbent.
Although he was raised and educated in Kentucky, Joseph C.S. Blackburn began his professional career as a lawyer in Chicago, IL. At the beginning of the Civil War, Blackburn returned to Kentucky, enlisting in the Confederate Army as a Private. Over the course of the war, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, Blackburn resumed his career as a lawyer and returned to Kentucky; he was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1871. His success as a lawyer and state legislator provided a launching pad for his election to U.S. Congress in 1876.
Once a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Blackburn served as a member of the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department. His participation in this committee granted him upward mobility in the Democratic Party organization in Congress; in the election scandal of 1876, Blackburn became the spokesperson for the Democratic Party on the issue, helping him to gain immense popularity not only in his home state, but in the party as a whole. In 1882, then Representative Blackburn supported a bill requesting $100,000 to build a building in Frankfort which was also supported by one of the state’s sitting senators, Senator John Williams (D-KY). When Blackburn was thought to take sole credit for securing the funds, Senator Williams became incensed and a conflict ensued that enveloped the entire Kentucky congressional delegation. At one point it was thought that the men had agreed to a duel to settle their differences but that drastic measure was averted, and eventually– in the words of the New York Times – “the war cloud…passed away.” Then, as now, credit claiming for service to the district and state was an important facet of reputation building in the Congress.
In 1884, after five terms in the House of Representatives, Blackburn ran for Senate against another war veteran, “Cerro Gordo” Williams; Kentucky’s state legislature voted almost a full year in advance to elect the U.S. Senator for the 1885 term. Blackburn’s speaking abilities and popularity, and former ties to the state legislature, were key to his efforts to build statewide support among constituents who he hoped would pressure state legislators into electing him. Still, despite his name recognition and party clout, he faced internal competition for the seat, and the Kentucky House and Senate met jointly and cast 19 roll call votes before Blackburn garnered enough votes (a majority) necessary to win the seat. Once he arrived in the U.S. Senate, as McConnell did, he set about building his reputation as someone who delivered benefits for the state and was a loyal party member. Blackburn sponsored bills to secure benefits for Kentucky soldiers and their families in the form of pension and relief bills, supported the interoceanic canal project, and fought for a number of state issues, including infrastructure projects and school funding. While he introduced and supported a large number of bills and projects, he missed 34% of roll-call votes.
When the Kentucky state legislature convened in 1890, Blackburn ran for reelection for the 1891 term, and this time he won the seat on the first ballot. However, during his second term as U.S. Senator, the Kentucky Democratic Party began to suffer from intense intra-party fighting, and gap narrowed between Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature. When Blackburn sought reelection in 1896 for the 1897 term, he ran into considerable difficulty notably because the Democrats had a narrow majority in the state senate, but the Republicans had a narrow majority in the state house. Along with the rest of the country, the issue of free silver versus sound money was hotly contested and Blackburn was firmly in the free silver camp. The fighting over the seat was so intense that violence broke out in and around the state legislature; then Governor William Bradley (R) called up Kentucky state militia to keep the peace and prevent further violence over the Senate election (Bradley himself would be elected to the Senate in 1908). Amid all this tumult, Blackburn could not win a majority in support for his reelection; the House and Senate in joint session cast 52 ballots before ultimately giving up and declaring themselves deadlocked over the Senate choice. Blackburn then threw his hat into the Democratic contest for president but he lost the nomination to William Jennings Bryan. The Kentucky legislature reconvened in 1897, and after 60 joint session ballots selected Republican William Deboe, a state senator.
In 1900, Blackburn ran again for Senate, this time seeking the other Senate seat with the term beginning in 1901. By this time the Democrats had regained control of both chambers of the state legislature and were unified in their support of him. He won that election, and returned to the U.S. Senate, much to the pleasure of his fellow Democratic senators. During his time back in the U.S. Senate, Blackburn defended the national platform of the Democratic Party in his role as the Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. In 1906, Blackburn sought reelection to what would have been 4th term in office, but he was out maneuvered by a fellow Democrat, Thomas Paynter who lined up enough support before voting began to knock Blackburn out of contention. Blackburn was subsequently appointed to be Governor of the Canal Zone in Panama, a project that Blackburn had supported during his Senate career. He served in this position until 1909, when he retired from politics; he died on September 12, 1918. 
Comparing the careers of Mitch McConnell and Joseph Blackburn, from different centuries, elected under different electoral structures, and from different political parties, we still see core elements to being a long term U.S. Senator from Kentucky. Climbing up the ladder of politics is essential in that state, where personal and political connections at the local level form the basis of statewide power. Each of these long serving U.S. Senators stayed attentive to constituents, advertised their service, and championed national party policy. Moreover, both men had to confront factions that divided their own parties, and despite the divisions in the Kentucky GOP in 2014, McConnell kept his seat, in contrast to Blackburn who lost his seat in 1896. But then again Blackburn regained his seat just 4 years later on the foundation of the career he had built previously. Those constituency roots run long and deep in Kentucky.
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