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Mitch McConnell diagnosed GOP problem with voters but didn’t follow his own prescription

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Mitch McConnell diagnosed GOP problem with voters but didn’t follow his own prescription

Dec 01, 2022 | 6:00 am ET
By Vanessa Gallman
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Mitch McConnell diagnosed GOP problem with voters but didn’t follow his own prescription
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has diagnosed the GOP's problem with voters. The Respect for Marriage Act gave him a chance to back up his analysis with a meaningful vote, but he didn't. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, after beating back a challenge to his leadership position, offered a reasonable analysis on why his party fell short of midterm election hopes.

“We underperformed among indepen­­dents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party, and leadership roles, is that they’re dogged in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks,” Kentucky’s senior senator told reporters. “And it frightened independent and moderate Republican voters.”

Yet, the next day McConnell voted against the Respect for Marriage Act, which aims to protect people in interracial and same-sex marriages from discrimination. He reinforced impressions of negativity and chaos, showing little compassion for families unnerved by recent violence, court rulings and state laws targeting LGBTQ citizens.

His unexplained vote was especially confusing since he is in an interracial marriage with Elaine Chao, a Cabinet secretary in two GOP administrations.

Fortunately, 12 Republicans — out of 50 — joined Democrats on Nov. 29 to give final Senate approval to the bill, which is expected to pass the House. An earlier House version won support from 47 of 214 GOP lawmakers, none from Kentucky.

Still, this an opportunity for McConnell to demonstrate the type of leadership that he says independents and moderates seek. Despite a well-deserved reputation for blocking legislation, he has supported recent bipartisan initiatives: investments in infrastructure and in semiconductor manufacturing, as well as reforms in gun safety and veterans’ health care.

On the night of the final vote on the marriage bill, McConnell did receive media attention for coming close to criticizing former president Donald Trump for hosting a dinner for an unapologetic white supremacist. “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States,” he said. Trump, running for president again, responded by calling McConnell “a loser.”

What is really lost in GOP infighting is a party leader who would speak up for those targeted by hate groups, including those in same-sex or interracial marriages.

The marriage bill does not order states to perform these marriages. It requires them to re­spect marriage licenses, adoption orders and divorce decrees issued by other states. It also repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a moot bipartisan law that describes marriage as only between a man and a woman. Polygamous marriages are not recognized and nonprofit religious groups won’t have to provide support or facilities for same-sex marriages.

The push for this legislation is a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June overthrow of the nearly 50-year federal right to abortion, allowing states to set up restrictions and bans. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas encouraged challenges to other privacy rights, including same-sex marriage approved by the court in 2015.

The 6-3 conservative court majority is one of McConnell’s proudest accomplishments. While Senate leader, he refused a hearing for a Democratic nomination for nearly a year and rushed a GOP nomination in a month right before the presidential election. So, in a sense, he is a catalyst for the marriage bill.

Some marriage bill critics — including Kentucky Reps. Andy Barr, Hal Rogers and Brett Guthrie — call it a political stunt, since there are currently no court challenges. But it’s hard to trust a court that so easily overturns precedent and appears too partisan.

Others complain that it does not go far enough to protect religious freedom. Yet, 40 faith organizations sent a letter of support to the Senate, saying they consider the right to marry who you choose “a matter of human dignity.”

A March Public Religion Research Institute poll found that majorities of most major religious groups support same-sex marriage. That includes 83% of Jewish Americans, more than 70% of Catholics and Protestants, and more than half of Muslims. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) said it would not oppose same-sex marriage if it didn’t infringe on the church’s practices.

Still, some evangelical and conservative policy groups have criticized McConnell for not demanding that GOP senators vote against the bill. Politicos could argue that his under-the-radar negative vote was a strategy to acknowledge those critics without standing in the way of passage.

Yet GOP catering to the political extremes is a major reason McConnell will not return to the top Senate post in January. It’s why he and other party leaders are still afraid to call Trump out by name. Unless his priorities change, McConnell will struggle to persuade voters that his party is not as scary as it seems.