Why won’t Mitch McConnell protect our elections from outside interference?
His Republican colleagues in the Senate want to do something. That’s why some of the most conservative members of his caucus are working with Democrats to improve the nation’s election security.
One proposal, according to The New York Times, would “require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.” Another, devised by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, would “impose mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks an American election.” Yet another, the brainchild of Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, would “codify cyber information-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials.”
House Democrats have already introduced legislation to bolster election security and would most likely work with the Senate to put together a compromise proposal should a bill pass that chamber. But McConnell refuses to consider any legislation on election security during this congressional term. For the Senate majority leader, the problem has already been solved, and this rare show of bipartisan cooperation doesn’t matter. “I think the majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Roy Blunt of Missouri, a McConnell ally, said.
The easiest explanation for McConnell’s opposition to the various election security proposals is captured in one word: Trump. Only recently has the president acknowledged foreign interference in the 2016 election. “Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” Trump said last month on Twitter, blasting Robert Mueller’s investigation. “It was a crime that didn’t exist.” Later, however, he returned to his usual position of denying any assistance or interference at all. “Russia did not get me elected,” he said.
The president’s endless denial makes sense: To acknowledge any election interference on his behalf is to undermine the legitimacy of his victory, even if the hacking and disinformation were not decisive.
McConnell works closely with the White House to put conservative judicial nominees on the federal bench. It’s his key priority. “I love the tax bill and a lot of the other things we did,” McConnell said in an interview last year. “But I think lifetime appointments — not only to the Supreme Court but to the circuit courts — are the way you have the longest-lasting impact on the country.” He needs a good relationship with the president. Why, then, would he give this legislation a chance to pass? Why antagonize an ally?
But McConnell’s relationship with Trump isn’t the only way to explain his opposition to these proposals. For the past two decades of his Senate career, McConnell has been a tireless opponent of openness, accessibility and transparency in elections. He stood against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and, more recently, blasted Democrats for their push to expand access to the ballot. He’s driven by a simple calculation: that secure, open elections are elections that McConnell — and the Republican Party he leads in the Senate — are less likely to win.
McConnell’s career makes clear that he has few, if any, political and ideological convictions. As Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, observes in “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” McConnell was reliably pro-choice until it became inconvenient and pro-union when it would get him votes. But his most revealing turnaround was on campaign finance.
As chairman of his county Republican Party in the 1970s, he backed aggressive campaign finance reform. He wanted “drastically” lower contribution limits, full donor disclosure, a ceiling on overall spending and public financing of elections. “Many qualified and ethical persons are either totally priced out of the election marketplace or will not submit themselves to questionable, or downright illicit, practices that may accompany the current electoral process,” he wrote in a 1973 op-ed for The Courier-Journal in Kentucky.
In 1990, as the junior senator from Kentucky, he introduced legislation to abolish political action committees. In 1993, he backed a ban on funds collected outside the contribution limits for individual candidates — what had come to be known as “soft money.” “Soft money should be banned,” McConnell wrote at the time. “All campaign spending should be on the top of the table where voters can see it.” By the end of the decade, however, McConnell would be a reliable foe of virtually every limit on the ability to raise and spend money in politics.
The reasons for his reversal were straightforward. At heart, McConnell is a partisan. When he thought campaign finance reform would harm Democrats or help him win higher office, he backed campaign finance reform. When he thought Democrats relied on soft money, he tried to ban soft money. But when those funds began to fill his campaign war chest, he changed his tune. By 1997, he had nothing but good things to say about soft money. “Soft money is just a euphemism for free speech,” he said. For McConnell, winning was the only thing that mattered, and anything it took to win was fair game.
Months before the 2016 election, the Obama administration alerted congressional leaders about the potential for serious Russian interference in the presidential race and sought a bipartisan statement condemning the Kremlin’s actions. McConnell stood in the way, scuttling the effort.
Later we would learn in the Mueller report that Russian intelligence breached computer systems in at least one Florida county government and planted malware in the systems of an election equipment manufacturer. There’s every reason to think we’ll see similar attempts to interfere in the 2020 elections. Given the weakness of our election infrastructure, they may succeed. And Trump, for his part, has already said he welcomes help from any foreign government that wants to interfere on his behalf. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it,” the president said in an Oval Office interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
McConnell is driven by what would help or hurt the Republican Party. That’s why he opposes automatic voter registration and other efforts to bring more people to the polls. Is McConnell’s opposition to his colleagues’ election-security proposals rooted in some principle, or is the endlessly cynical McConnell following the only impulse that has ever mattered to him, the impulse to win?
The question answers itself. Partisan politics is the reason McConnell is standing in the way of better election security. For him, all that matters is the win, even if he compromises and corrupts our democracy.