Just what makes Mitch tick?
In Mitchworld, you simply pay—and pay, and pay—to play …
He very quickly developed a reputation as an expert… on fundraising… his primary political strength and probably the only reason he was even in office to begin with.
His problem was that, back in the early 1990s, limiting money in politics was a popular and mostly bipartisan idea, and the main disagreements were about what kinds of money to restrict and how to do it. And over the years, McConnell shamelessly, fluidly recalibrated his arguments based on what was more useful to him, and then his party, at that moment.
When McConnell felt he wasn’t getting enough support from PACs, he wanted PACs banned. When he thought Democrats were outperforming Republicans with “soft money”— contributions from corporations and unions to parties, not individual candidates— McConnell wanted soft money banned. By the end of the ’90s, when it was clear how much Republicans were benefiting from soft money, he was vociferously defending it from the attacks of his Republican Senate colleague John McCain, who’d made it his mission to rein in political spending. For years, McConnell argued for disclosure of donors instead of spending restrictions. By the 2010s, when Democrats were pushing exactly that position to curb some of the deregulatory excesses of the Citizens United ruling—which represents the closest thing you’ll find to a lodestar for McConnell’s belief system—the Senate leader of course reversed himself yet again.
Curiously, McConnell’s own personal fortunes are frequently left out of his profiles, perhaps because it appears vaguely unseemly for reporters or editors to just come out and say the plain truth: He married into money, which had enormous political benefits. This is not to make any unsavory insinuation about the nature of his relationship with Elaine Chao—it is, however, to note that she was a wealthy shipping heiress when they married, and he was effectively a lifelong politician who’d barely sniffed the private sector. Even before the marriage, Chao’s wealthy father had been a large Mitch McConnell donor; after, he became an even more enthusiastic one. He also gave the couple at least one reported gift of millions of dollars. In 2016, Mitch McConnell was estimated to be worth around $27 million.
McConnell knew first that unlimited fundraising was the key to his own political fortunes. He came to realize it was the best way for the Republicans to keep their power too, as unions declined and corporate power, along with income inequality, rose and rose. Republicans have a built-in advantage in a world of unlimited political spending.