During the administration of President Barack Obama, McConnell was known to the left as being an obstructionist, while opinion on the right was sharply divided. Some on the right praised him for tenacity and courage, while others criticized him for being part of the political establishment and not keeping his promises to conservatives. McConnell has gained a reputation as a skilled political strategist and tactician.
From early 2016, McConnell refused to schedule Senate hearings for Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, to replace Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. Garland's nomination remained before the Senate for 294 days, from March 16, 2016, until it expired on January 3, 2017, more than double the time of any other Supreme Court nomination. Later, McConnell used the so-called "nuclear option" to lower the threshold for overriding filibusters for Supreme Court nominees to a simple majority, with the aim of confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Court.
McConnell is of Scots-Irish and English descent, the son of Addison Mitchell McConnell, and his wife, Julia (née Shockley). McConnell was born on February 20, 1942, in Sheffield, Alabama, and raised as a young child in nearby Athens.
As a youth, McConnell overcame polio, which he was struck with at age 2. He received treatment at the Warm Springs Institute in Georgia, which potentially saved him from being disabled for the rest of his life. In 1990, McConnell said that his family "almost went broke" because of costs related to his illness.
When he was eight, McConnell's family moved to Georgia. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Louisville, where he attended duPont Manual High School. He graduated with honors from the University of Louisville with a B.A. in political science in 1964. McConnell was president of the Student Council of the College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. He has maintained strong ties to his alma mater and "remains a rabid fan of its sports teams." In 1967, McConnell graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law, where he was president of the Student Bar Association.
In March 1967, shortly before graduating from law school, McConnell enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve at Louisville, Kentucky. In August 1967, after five weeks of military training at Fort Knox, he received an honorable discharge for medical reasons (optic neuritis).
McConnell began interning for Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-KY) in 1964, and his time with Cooper inspired him to run for the Senate eventually himself. Later, McConnell was an assistant to Senator Marlow Cook (R-KY) and was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General under President Gerald R. Ford, where he worked alongside future Justice Antonin Scalia. In 1977, McConnell was elected the Jefferson County Judge/Executive, the former top political office in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He was re-elected in 1981.
In 1984, McConnell ran for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democratic incumbent Walter Dee Huddleston. The election race wasn't decided until the last returns came in, and McConnell won by a thin margin—only 5,200 votes out of more than 1.8 million votes cast, just over 0.4%. McConnell was the only Republican Senate challenger to win that year, despite Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in the presidential election. Part of McConnell's success came from a series of television campaign spots called "Where's Dee", which featured a group of bloodhounds trying to find Huddleston, implying that Huddleston's attendance record in the Senate was less than stellar. His campaign bumper stickers and television ads asked voters to "Switch to Mitch".
In 1990, McConnell faced a tough re-election contest against former Louisville Mayor Harvey I. Sloane, winning by 4.4%.
In 1996, he defeated Steve Beshear by 12.6%, even as Bill Clinton narrowly carried the state. In keeping with a tradition of humorous and effective television ads in his campaigns, McConnell's campaign ran television ads that warned voters to not "Get BeSheared" and included images of sheep being sheared.
In 2002, he was re-elected against Lois Combs Weinberg by 29.4%, the largest majority by a statewide Republican candidate in Kentucky history.
In 2008, McConnell faced his closest contest since 1990. He defeated Bruce Lunsford by 6%.
In 2014, McConnell faced Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the Republican primary. The 60.2% won by McConnell was the lowest voter support for a Kentucky U.S. Senator in a primary by either party since 1938. He faced Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. Although polls showed the race was very close, ultimately McConnell defeated Grimes by 56.2%–40.7%, resulting in a margin of victory of 15.5 percentage points – one of his largest margins of victory, second only to his 2002 margin.
During the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Republicans maintained control of the Senate after both elections. He was first elected as Majority Whip in the 108th Congress and unanimously re-elected on November 17, 2004. Senator Bill Frist, the Majority Leader, did not seek re-election in the 2006 elections. In November 2006, after Republicans lost control of the Senate, they elected McConnell to replace Frist as Minority Leader. After Republicans took control of the Senate following the 2014 Senate elections, McConnell became the Senate Majority Leader.
According to The New York Times, in his early years as a politician in Kentucky, McConnell was "something of a centrist". In recent years, however, McConnell has veered sharply to the right. He now opposed collective-bargaining rights and minimum-wage increases that he previously supported, and abandoned pork barrel projects he once delivered to the state of Kentucky. He believed that Reagan's popularity made conservatism much more appealing.
According to a profile in Politico, "While most politicians desperately want to be liked, McConnell has relished—and cultivated—his reputation as a villain." The Politico profile also noted "For most of Obama's presidency, McConnell has been the face of Republican obstructionism." According to Salon, "Despite McConnell's reputation as the man who said his No. 1 goal was to stop President Obama from winning a second term, it's been McConnell at the table when the big deals—be they over threatened government shutdowns, debt defaults or fiscal cliffs—have been finalized."
Reporter Alec MacGillis wrote a book about Mitch McConnell, published by Simon & Schuster on December 23, 2014, titled The Cynic, which alludes to the author's belief that McConnell mostly acts the way he does for political gains and not out of ideology.
With a 49% disapproval rate in 2016, he had the highest disapproval rate out of all senators. McConnell has repeatedly been found to have the lowest home state approval rating of any sitting senator.
After winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1984, McConnell backed anti-apartheid legislation with Chris Dodd. McConnell went on to engineer new IMF funding to "faithfully protect aid to Egypt and Israel," and "promote free elections and better treatment of Muslim refugees" in Myanmar, Cambodia and Macedonia. According to a March 2014 article in Politico, "McConnell was a 'go-to guy' for presidents of both parties seeking foreign aid," but he has lost some of his idealism and has evolved to be more wary of foreign assistance.
In August 2007, McConnell introduced the Protect America Act of 2007, which allowed the National Security Agency to monitor telephone and electronic communications of suspected terrorists outside the United States without obtaining a warrant. McConnell was the only party leader in Congress to oppose the resolution that would authorize military strikes against Syria in September 2013, citing a lack of national security risk.
On March 27, 2014, McConnell introduced the United States International Programming to Ukraine and Neighboring Regions bill, which would provide additional funding and instructions to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in response to the 2014 Crimea crisis.
In September 2016, the Senate voted 71 to 27 against the Chris Murphy–Rand Paul resolution to block the $1.15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen has been accused of war crimes. Following the vote, McConnell said: "I think it's important to the United States to maintain as good a relationship with Saudi Arabia as possible."
McConnell argued that campaign finance regulations reduce participation in political campaigns and protect incumbents from competition. He spearheaded the movement against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (known since 1995 as the "McCain–Feingold bill" and from 1989 to 1994 as the "Boren–Mitchell bill"), calling it "neither fair, nor balanced, nor constitutional." His opposition to the bill culminated in the 2003 Supreme Court case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission and the 2009 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. McConnell has been an advocate for free speech at least as far back as the early 1970s when he was teaching night courses at the University of Louisville. "No issue has shaped his career more than the intersection of campaign financing and free speech," political reporter Robert Costa wrote in 2012. In a recording of a 2014 fundraiser McConnell expressed his disapproval of the McCain-Feingold law, saying, "The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his first Administration."
On January 2, 2013, the Public Campaign Action Fund, a liberal nonprofit group that backs stronger campaign finance regulation, released a report highlighting eight instances from McConnell's political career in which a vote or a blocked vote (filibuster), coincided with an influx of campaign contributions to McConnell's campaign. Progress Kentucky, a SuperPAC focused on defeating McConnell in 2014, hosted a press conference in front of the Senator's Louisville office to highlight the report's findings.
McConnell opposed the Flag Desecration Amendment in 2000. According to McConnell: "We must curb this reflexive practice of attempting to cure each and every political and social ill of our nation by tampering with the Constitution. The Constitution of this country was not a rough draft. It was not a rough draft and we should not treat it as such." McConnell offered an amendment to the measure that would have made flag desecration a statutory crime, illegal without amending the Constitution.
In August 2001, McConnell introduced the Common Sense Medical Malpractice Reform Act of 2001. The bill would require that a health care liability action must be initiated within two years, non-economic damages may not exceed $250,000, and punitive damages may only be awarded in specified situations.
McConnell voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called ObamaCare or the Affordable Care Act) in December 2009, and he voted against the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. In 2014, McConnell repeated his call for the full repeal of Obamacare and said that Kentucky should be allowed to keep the state's health insurance exchange website, Kynect, or set up a similar system. McConnell is part of the group of 13 Senators drafting the Senate version of the AHCA behind closed doors. The Senator refused over 15 patient advocacy organization's requests to meet with his congressional staff to discuss the legislation. This included groups like the American Heart Association, March of Dimes, American Lung Association. and the American Diabetes Association.
McConnell received the Kentucky Life Science Champion Awards for his work in promoting innovation in the life science sector.
In 2015, both houses of Congress passed a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It was vetoed by President Obama in January 2016.
After President Trump took office in January 2017, Senate Republicans, under McConnell's leadership, began to work on a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. They faced opposition from both Democrats and moderate Republicans, who claimed that the bill would leave too many people uninsured, and more conservative Republicans, who protested that the bill kept too many of the ACA's regulation and spending increases, and was thus not a full repeal. Numerous attempts at repeal failed. On June 27, after a meeting with President Trump at the White House, McConnell signaled improvements for the repeal and replacement: "We're not quite there. But I think we’ve got a really good chance of getting there. It’ll just take us a little bit longer." During a Rotary Club lunch on July 6, McConnell said, "If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to the private health insurance market must occur."
In July 2003, McConnell sponsored the Small Business Liability Reform Act of 2003. The bill would protect small businesses from litigation excesses and limit the liability of non-manufacturer product sellers.
McConnell was the sponsor of the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008. The bill, which did not pass, would have allowed states to engage in increased offshore and domestic oil exploration in an effort to curb rising gas prices.
In June 2008, McConnell introduced the Alternative Minimum Tax and Extenders Tax Relief Act of 2008. The bill was intended to limit the impact of the Alternative Minimum Tax.
In an interview with National Journal magazine published October 23, 2010, McConnell explained that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Asked whether this meant "endless, or at least frequent, confrontation with the president," McConnell clarified that "if [Obama is] willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it's not inappropriate for us to do business with him."
In September 2010, McConnell sponsored the Tax Hike Prevention Act of 2010. The bill would have permanently extended the tax relief provisions of 2001 and 2003 and provided permanent Alternative Minimum Tax and estate tax relief.
In 2010, McConnell requested earmarks for the defense contractor BAE Systems while the company was under investigation by the Department of Justice for alleged bribery of foreign officials.
In June 2011, McConnell introduced a Constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment. The amendment would require two-thirds votes in Congress to increase taxes or for federal spending to exceed the current year's tax receipts or 18% of the prior year's GDP. The amendment specifies situations when these requirements would be waived.
In December 2012, McConnell called for a vote on giving the president unilateral authority to raise the federal debt ceiling. When Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called for an up or down vote, McConnell objected to the vote and ended up filibustering it himself. In 2014, McConnell voted to help break Ted Cruz's filibuster attempt against a debt limit increase and then against the bill itself.
After two intersessions to get federal grants for Alltech, whose president T. Pearse Lyons made subsequent campaign contributions to McConnell, to build a plant in Kentucky for producing ethanol from algae, corncobs, and switchgrass, McConnell criticized President Obama in 2012 for twice mentioning biofuel production from algae in a speech touting his "all-of-the-above" energy policy.
In April 2014, the United States Senate debated the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 2199; 113th Congress). It was a bill that "punishes employers for retaliating against workers who share wage information, puts the justification burden on employers as to why someone is paid less and allows workers to sue for punitive damages of wage discrimination." McConnell said that he opposed the legislation because it would "line the pockets of trial lawyers", not help women.
In July 2014, McConnell expressed opposition to a U.S. Senate bill that would limit the practice of corporate inversion by U.S. corporations seeking to limit U.S. tax liability.
McConnell expressed skepticism that climate change is a problem, telling the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board in 2014, "I'm not a scientist, I am interested in protecting Kentucky's economy, I'm interested in having low cost electricity."
McConnell was one of 22 senators to sign a letter to President Donald Trump urging the President to have the United States withdraw from the Paris Agreement. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, McConnell has received over $1.5 million from the oil and gas industry since 2012.
On the weekend of January 19–21, 2013, the McConnell for Senate campaign emailed and robo-called gun-rights supporters telling them that "President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your constitutional right to keep and bear arms." McConnell also said, "I'm doing everything in my power to protect your 2nd Amendment rights." On April 17, 2013, McConnell voted against expanding background checks for gun purchases.
In October 2002, McConnell voted for the Iraq Resolution, which authorized military action against Iraq. McConnell supported the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. In 2010, McConnell "accused the White House of being more concerned about a messaging strategy than prosecuting a war against terrorism."
In 2006, McConnell publicly criticized Senate Democrats for urging that troops be brought back from Iraq. According to Bush's Decision Points memoir, however, McConnell was privately urging the then President to "bring some troops home from Iraq" to lessen the political risks. McConnell's hometown paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, in an editorial titled "McConnell's True Colors", criticized McConnell for his actions and asked him to "explain why the fortunes of the Republican Party are of greater importance than the safety of the United States."
Regarding the failure of the Iraqi government to make reforms, McConnell said the following on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer: "The Iraqi government is a huge disappointment. Republicans overwhelmingly feel disappointed about the Iraqi government. I read just this week that a significant number of the Iraqi parliament want to vote to ask us to leave. I want to assure you, Wolf, if they vote to ask us to leave, we'll be glad to comply with their request."
On April 21, 2009, McConnell delivered a speech to the Senate criticizing President Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, and questioned the additional 81 million dollar White House request for funds to transfer prisoners to the United States.
From 2003 to 2008, the list of McConnell's top 20 donors included five financial/investment firms: UBS, FMR Corporation (Fidelity Investments), Citigroup, Bank of New York, and Merrill Lynch.
In April 2010, while Congress was considering financial reform legislation, a reporter asked McConnell if he was "doing the bidding of the large banks." McConnell has received more money in donations from the "Finance, Insurance and Real Estate" sector than any other sector according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McConnell responded "I'd say that that's inaccurate. You could talk to the community bankers in Kentucky." The Democratic Party's plan for financial reform is actually a way to institute "endless taxpayer funded bailouts for big Wall Street banks", said McConnell. He expressed concern that the proposed $50 billion, bank-funded fund that would be used to liquidate financial firms that could collapse "would of course immediately signal to everyone that the government is ready to bail out large banks". In McConnell's home state of Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran an editorial saying: "We have read that the Republicans have a plan for financial reform, but McConnell isn't talking up any solutions, just trashing the other side's ideas with no respect for the truth." According to one tally, McConnell's largest donor from the period from January 1, 2009, to September 30, 2015, was Bob McNair, contributing $1,502,500.
In an August 2016 speech in Kentucky, McConnell, speaking of President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court (to fill the vacancy caused by Antonin Scalia's death in February 2016) said, "One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, 'Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.'"
McConnell initially endorsed fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Following Paul's withdrawal, McConnell stayed neutral for the remainder of the primary. On May 4, 2016, McConnell endorsed then presumptive nominee Donald Trump. "I have committed to supporting the nominee chosen by Republican voters, and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee, is now on the verge of clinching the nomination."
On multiple occasions, McConnell criticized Trump but continued to endorse Trump's candidacy. On May 27, 2016, after Trump suggested that a Federal Judge, Gonzalo P. Curiel, was biased against Trump because of his Mexican heritage, McConnell responded, "I don't agree with what he (Trump) had to say. This is a man who was born in Indiana. All of us came here from somewhere else." On July 31, 2016, after Trump had criticized the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier who was killed in Iraq, McConnell stated, "Captain Khan was an American hero, and like all Americans, I'm grateful for the sacrifices that selfless young men like Captain Khan and their families have made in the war on terror. All Americans should value the patriotic service of the patriots who volunteer to selflessly defend us in the armed services." On October 7, 2016, following the Donald Trump Access Hollywood controversy, McConnell stated: "As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape."
With regards to the US response to intelligence findings that Russia was responsible for cyberattacks undertaken to influence the American election, after Trump won the election, Senator McConnell expressed "support for investigating American intelligence findings that Moscow intervened.". Prior to the election however, when FBI Director James Comey, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and other officials met with the leadership of both parties to make the case for a bipartisan statement warning Russia that such actions would not be tolerated "McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics," The Washington Post reported, citing accounts of several unnamed officials.
On February 7, 2017, McConnell stopped Senator Elizabeth Warren who was reading out statements opposing Jeff Sessions's nomination as federal judge that had been made by Ted Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, on the grounds of Senate Rule XIX. He defended his decision by saying "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted," a statement which was turned into a battle cry by Warren supporters.
On April 2, McConnell denied knowing anything about potential wiretapping of Trump by the Obama administration, saying there was an ongoing investigation.Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
Subcommittee on Rural Revitalization, Conservation, Forestry, and Credit
Subcommittee on Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health
Subcommittee on Hunger, Nutrition and Family Farms
Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
Subcommittee on Defense
Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans' Affairs, and Related Agencies
Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
Committee on Rules and Administration
Select Committee on Intelligence (Ex officio)
Elections are shown with a map depicting county-by-county information. McConnell is shown in red and Democratic opponents shown in blue.
McConnell is a Southern Baptist. He was married to his first wife, Sherrill Redmon, from 1968 to 1980, and had three children. Following their divorce, she became a feminist scholar at Smith College and director of the Sophia Smith Collection. His second wife, who married him in 1993, is Elaine Chao, the former Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush. On November 29, 2016, incoming President Donald Trump nominated Chao to serve as the Secretary of Transportation. She was confirmed by the Senate on January 31, 2017, in a 93–6 vote. McConnell himself voted "present" during the confirmation roll call.
McConnell is on the Board of Selectors of Jefferson Awards for Public Service.
In 1997, he founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech, a Washington, D.C.-based legal defense organization. McConnell was inducted as a member of the Sons of the American Revolution on March 1, 2013.
In 2010, the OpenSecrets website ranked McConnell one of the wealthiest members of the U.S. Senate, based on net household worth. His personal wealth was increased after receiving a 2008 personal gift to him and his wife, given by his father-in-law James S. C. Chao after the death of McConnell's mother-in-law, that ranged between $5 and $25 million.
McConnell appears in the title sequence of seasons 1 and 2 of Alpha House making a speech with Matt Malloy's Senator Louis Laffer apparently standing just behind him.
Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart repeatedly mocked McConnell for his supposed resemblance to a turtle or tortoise.