Inside Mitch McConnell's personal push to defeat Democrats' voting reforms

David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — Every week, a group of nearly 100 conservative leaders convene for a 30-minute strategy call on a single issue: how to combat Democrats’ sweeping legislation to change the way federal elections are conducted.

Two weeks ago, the keynote briefer was Sen. Mitch McConnell, who made it crystal clear that defeating the “For the People Act” is his top priority of this two-year legislative session.

McConnell has conveyed his vehement opposition to the bill repeatedly in public. What’s different, conservatives say, is his personal level of commitment behind-the-scenes to educate activists on just how damaging the legislation would be to the future electoral prospects of Republicans. To those involved, they’ve noticed a level of engagement from the GOP leader they haven’t seen before.

“So many times the conservative movement only works with McConnell when it’s a Supreme Court nomination, or a Supreme Court fight. And so we’ve been trying to change that with HR 1 and S 1 and really make this fight similar and more akin to a Supreme Court fight, where it’s like an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, one of the leading conservative groups mobilizing to fight President Joe Biden’s agenda.

That the bills in both congressional chambers are listed with the number "1" indicates just how eager Democrats are to pass them. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has designated the overhaul of voting rights as a top priority he wants to see completed by August.

The House and accompanying Senate bill are packed with a laundry list of provisions, including the elimination of voter identification requirements and implementation of automatic voter registration and same-day voting registration.

It would end gerrymandering, the partisan process used to redraw congressional districts as well as provide matching federal dollars to candidates who pledge to swear off large campaign contributions.

McConnell has blasted this as a “partisan takeover” that “would victimize every taxpayer” and “give Washington Democrats unprecedented control over 50 states’ election laws.” His political aide Josh Holmes has dubbed it “the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever laid eyes upon.”

Some progressives have warned that McConnell is taking the legislation more seriously than even Democrats are. And the fight is expected to intensify next week, when the Senate Rules & Administration Committee is scheduled to begin marking up the legislation.

Jenny Beth Martin, who leads Tea Party Patriots Action, has been mobilizing her members on the issue for weeks.

“They do not want the federal takeover of elections. They do not want the corrupt politicians’ act to pass. That is their number one concern,” Martin said.


At the moment, McConnell looks to hold the advantage. Moderate Democrats have been fretting about the sheer size of the bill, and some have suggested it be slimmed down to make it more politically palatable.

One idea is to tailor its intent purely around making it easier to vote -- but even that is likely to marshal nearly united opposition from Republicans, many of whom believe the rules for casting ballots are already too lax and invite the possibility of fraud.

But Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said Republicans won’t accept any legislation that prohibits requiring an ID to receive a ballot.

“Everyone knows that showing an ID is part of our daily lives, whether we travel, whether we check into a hotel, whether we go to will-call to get tickets for a high school basketball game. To say you have to show an ID in every part of your life but to vote … that says a lot about the Democrats,” said Comer. “And it would lead one to believe, what are they trying to cheat? They’re either trying to cheat or playing the race card. Either way it’s alienating a lot of average Americans.”

While there’s no widespread evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, many GOP-led state legislatures are moving to pass laws making it more burdensome to cast a ballot. The “For the People Act” would essentially nullify those efforts.

McConnell’s private remarks fuse the policy, politics and process components of the issue and almost always lead to a reminder of the filibuster’s importance. Some progressives have signaled that the inability to expand voting rights will force Schumer to nuke the filibuster, a threat that conservatives are taking seriously.

“They’re going to try to use HR 1 as a linchpin to pry open the filibuster,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which has been holding rallies in 2022 Senate battlegrounds like Nevada and Arizona to pressure Democrats to keep the filibuster. “The pressure hasn’t reached the boiling point that it’s going to. You’re going to see part of the media, the hard left, a lot of the cultural mechanisms they control ... the pressure is not remotely as high as it’s going to be if Schumer goes to the well of the Senate and makes a move on the filibuster.

We’re not waiting for him to do it.”

But while McConnell remains the favorite bogeyman of the left, he may not be the most responsible party if the bill doesn’t clear the Senate. Democrats don’t even quite have 50 votes yet themselves and Republicans are expressing confidence moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is with them.

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