When Mitch McConnell Met Roger Ailes: An Early Lesson in Winning At All Costs

In 1984, Mitch McConnell hired Roger Ailes to help him win elections. He’d soon learn what that really meant.

Alec MacGillis | The Cynic | September 2014 | 13 minutes (3,241 words)


Below is an excerpt from The Cynic, a new book by The New Republic writer Alec MacGillis about Mitch McConnell, who was just elected to a sixth term in the U.S. Senate and—with Republicans now taking control of the Senate—will become the new majority leader. Our thanks to MacGillis for sharing this with the Longreads community.

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In 1984, Mitch McConnell hired Roger Ailes. Ailes was still a dozen years from founding Fox News, but his reputation was already well established. After meeting Richard Nixon backstage at The Mike Douglas Show, which he helped produce, he’d been brought on to tutor the dour candidate in the ways of television for the 1968 campaign. After stormy forays into theater and TV news, he was by the early 1980s specializing in creating ads for Republican Senate candidates. There was no mystery what you were getting when you hired Ailes as your adman—hard-hitting spots that went straight for the opponent’s weak spot. Factual accuracy was not a priority. To elect Alphonse D’Amato senator in New York, that meant highlighting his opponent Liz Holtzman’s unmarried status. To reelect Harrison “Jack” Schmitt in New Mexico, that meant producing an ad that accused his opponent, state attorney general Jeff Bingaman, of having freed a “convicted felon” on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. As Gabriel Sherman notes in his biography of Ailes, the FBI had “requested [the convict’s] temporary release into its custody in order for him to testify as a key prosecution witness at a trial in Texas for the murder of a judge.” Asked about the ad, Ailes said it was Bingaman’s job to point out the context of the felon’s release. “My responsibility ends with the act. Maybe folks can say I’m an unethical guy. But it’s not my job to make . . . Bingaman’s case.”

Ailes brought with him not only an unrestrained approach to the business of making ads but a penchant for personal drama. He was known to get into physical scuffles with coworkers and once punched a hole through the wall of the control room of the NBC late-night talk show where he worked. His personal style could hardly have been in starker contrast to that of the buttoned-down McConnell, for whom cutting loose meant sitting back with his aides in the county office after work to sip from the bottle of Old Forester bourbon he kept on hand.

But Ailes and McConnell shared one thing in common. And it trumped all difference, as well as any misgivings McConnell might have about hiring someone with an unscrupulous reputation. As Janet Mullins, McConnell’s manager for the coming campaign, later recalled: “Roger lived it and breathed it and wanted to win as badly as Mitch did.” Or as Ailes himself put it in his favorite office mantra: “Whatever it takes.”

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The person unfortunate enough to find himself in the sights of McConnell’s new hire was a second-term senator named Walter “Dee” Huddleston, a World War II tank gunner who’d entered politics after several decades in the radio business. He had won the race to succeed the retiring John Sherman Cooper. Now Cooper’s protégé wanted the seat back.

Huddleston was well liked and politically in tune with his constituents, a quintessential Southern Democrat. But like Todd Hollenbach, he did not realize what he was up against with this mild-mannered young Louisville lawyer. This miscalculation was understandable, to a degree—if Mitch McConnell had seemed ill-suited to campaigning among his fellow Louisvillians, he seemed even more so out in the state’s outlying areas. He did his best to develop what Joe Whittle, the Republican state chairman at the time, calls his “mountain presentation,” but he was never going to be as natural with rural voters as, say, Gene Snyder, who, on visiting country stores, was known to pull out a knife and start whittling some wood.

McConnell, on the other hand, “hasn’t enough personality to wash a shotgun,” as Forgy, who in 1984 was again serving as Reagan’s campaign chairman, puts it. It didn’t help McConnell in the common-touch department that he was often carrying around a briefcase, an accessory that Forgy suspected was totally for show—a ploy by Ailes to make the youthful-looking forty-two-year-old look more senatorial. “I remember once, in Bowling Green, [Vice President George H. W.] Bush came to speak and said, ‘What’s he doing? Why does he have that briefcase with him?’ ” Forgy recalls. But regardless of the quips, McConnell persisted. “Most people wouldn’t be willing to carry around a briefcase that’s empty,” says Forgy. “You’d say, ‘Shit, I’m not going to do that.’ But he did it. . . . Whatever they were telling him to do, he did.”

No Republican had won a statewide election in the state since Cooper’s big win in 1966. To plot a path to victory, McConnell’s new pollster, Lance Tarrance from Houston—whom McConnell had courted with two separate trips to the Kentucky Derby—had segmented the electorate into five different groups: registered Republicans, younger suburban ticket-splitters, white conservative Democrats, white liberal Democrats, and black voters, who tilted Democratic. Even if McConnell got nearly all of the first group and the vast majority of the second, that still left him only at about 40 percent. The “key to everything,” Tarrance says, was the white conservative Democrats. If he could get more than a third of them, then he might pull it off.

Except McConnell’s numbers with these conservative Democrats were, if anything, declining over the summer of 1984 in the surveys Tarrance was doing. “We were sixty days out, and I told him, if this continues, we’re not going to get it,” Tarrance says. As Ailes recalled: “He was so far behind we almost had to flip a coin about who was going to give him the bad news.”

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One Saturday night, Tarrance received an excited call from Ailes. “He told me he’d just finished with some wild and crazy ads that might blow up the campaign or might save it,” Tarrance says. Ailes sent the scripts to Tarrance by express mail. “They were brilliant,” says Tarrance. “Even though they were right out of Hee Haw.”

As Ailes later told it, he’d been watching TV at home that weekend when an ad for dog food came on, with a pack of dogs scurrying after a bag of kibble. This ad had stirred a recollection of a tidbit a campaign researcher had noted, that Huddleston had missed several important votes while giving paid speeches around the country (which senators were then allowed to do). Sherman, in his Ailes biography, describes the rest of the creative epiphany:

Ailes jotted down the word “Dogs!” on a piece of paper. During a strategy meeting, Ailes presented his vision. McConnell’s campaign manager, Janet Mullins, recalled the moment: “There was Roger, sitting in a cloud of pipe smoke, and he said, ‘This is Kentucky. I see hunting dogs. I see hound dogs on the scent looking for the lost member of Congress.’ ”

Thus was born a classic of the attack ad genre. Larry McCarthy, the Ailes associate who would go on to fame for crafting the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, was put in charge of finding dogs and a trainer. This task proved difficult—McCarthy first came back with bluetick hounds, which were deemed not true Kentucky hounds. He went out for different ones. “If you’re going to be culturally calling someone on the carpet, you better have your cultural facts right,” says Tarrance. “We threw everything we had at this, because we had maxed out everything else we could do.” Finally, it was ready: A pack of bloodhounds straining on their leashes head off from Capitol Hill, through the woods, across a beach, past a swimming pool, with this voice-over, scripted by Ailes: “My job was to find Dee Huddleston and get him back to work. Huddleston was skipping votes but making an extra fifty thousand dollars giving speeches. Let’s go, boys!”

The charge that Huddleston was playing widespread hooky was, as Newsweek noted at the time, “baseless”: Huddleston was present for 94 percent of votes. McConnell himself later admitted that an accompanying radio ad attacking Huddleston for his attendance at committee meetings was “fundamentally unfair” and “kind of ridiculous.” But the line of attack rang true, given that the phlegmatic Huddleston was running such a lackluster campaign. Voters ate it up—especially the conservative Democrats who might otherwise be left cool by the Louisville lawyer with the briefcase. “People would say, ‘Mitch, what about the coon hounds!’ ” says Whittle, who was often with McConnell on the trail. And McConnell’s numbers with that key segment surged.

Still, McConnell had not yet closed the gap, and an air of desperation was settling over the campaign. Never had Tarrance seen a candidate as on edge as McConnell in those final weeks. “He was pretty psychologically uptight, that’s as nice as I can put it,” Tarrance says. “He knew this was his one chance to make a breakout. It was all on the line. He kept using the phrase ‘We need to find the silver bullet,’ something to put us over fifty percent . . . . I’ve never been on a campaign before or since with so much physical tension to find the key that would finally open the door.” He adds, “Everything you discussed with Mitch was how to climb the mountain. There was no laughing, no joking.” Tarrance and Ailes had no shortage of campaigns to advise that year, he said, but on none of them were they working nearly as hard as for Mitch McConnell.

The campaign decided their best bet was to go back to the dogs one more time, at the risk of overdoing it. They aired a sequel in which the hound dogs find Huddleston, played by a look-alike actor, cowering way up in a tree.

That might have done it. McConnell won, just barely, by a margin of five thousand votes—four-tenths of a percentage point, about one vote per precinct. At the Republican victory party in Louisville, Gene Snyder, McConnell’s first boss in Washington, was overheard remarking with wry wonderment that Kentuckians had just elected to the U.S. Senate someone who had fewer friends in Kentucky than “anybody elected to anything.”

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McConnell’s margin of victory was particularly narrow in contrast to the more than 283,000 votes by which another Republican won that night in Kentucky: Ronald Reagan.

McConnell had an ambivalent relationship with the president. He was, after all, no Ronald Reagan Republican—in keeping with his John Sherman Cooper inheritance, he had backed Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H. W. Bush in 1980 over the conservative ex-governor from California (not only that, he had privately ranked Reagan fourth among Republican candidates in 1980). But with Reagan near the peak of his popularity in 1984 and running against Walter Mondale, a liberal Minnesotan with little appeal for Kentucky swing voters—especially those conservative Democrats who were the key to his election—McConnell had done his utmost to associate himself with the top of the ticket. Whittle, the state party chairman, had made it a refrain to tell voters around the state that Reagan “needs Mitch” in Washington. McConnell’s team, lacking campaign chairmen in many of the state’s counties, had asked the Reagan campaign if its county chairmen could double in that role for McConnell.

While the Reagan campaign agreed to that request, the eagerness for association had not been mutual. When Reagan came to Louisville for one of his debates against Mondale, a visit McConnell’s campaign hyped as much as it could, the president referred to the candidate as “O’Donnell.” But that slight had done nothing to diminish the tug of Reagan’s coattails. It was a political scientist’s axiom: if the top of the ticket is pulling 60 percent or more of the vote, there is a coattail effect for candidates farther down the ticket. “It helped a lot,” says Whittle. “Anytime you have someone like Ronald Reagan anyplace that’s conservative, it’s going to help the party down the line, down to sheriff. I hate to say that’s the whole thing, but in order to win Kentucky, you’ve got to get the Republicans out,” and Reagan did that for McConnell. Hollenbach, McConnell’s 1977 opponent, is blunter: “If you take away . . . Ronald Reagan, there is no Mitch McConnell.”

It was because Reagan’s impact on McConnell’s election was so obvious that people attending the GOP election night party in Louisville were so startled when McConnell, in his victory speech, did not acknowledge the president at all. After seeking to bask in Reagan’s reflected glow throughout the campaign, McConnell did not want to share the spotlight. “He never mentioned Reagan. He never said, ‘I appreciate the margin Reagan provided,’ ” says Forgy, Reagan’s Kentucky campaign chairman. When reporters asked Forgy that night about McConnell’s victory, he was candid. “I said, ‘Hell, Reagan’s coattails were as long as a bedsheet.’ ” When quotes to this effect appeared in the press the next morning, Forgy heard from McConnell. “He called me the next day and said, ‘Don’t say that anymore,’ ” Forgy says. “He didn’t want the Democrats to pick up on the fact that he was a political fluke—that he didn’t get there by an intentional process.”

McConnell was at a loss about how to discuss his victory. When Tully Plesser, his former pollster, called him after the election to congratulate him, McConnell told him that the press was “hounding him” about what he thought was key to his victory, and said that he had credited Ailes’s ad, rather than Reagan. Plesser told McConnell that this answer was wrong. “I told him to say that you won because your positions coincided with the interests of the voters. Not because a very skilled and manipulative operative pulled a stunt on your behalf.”

McConnell took this advice. From that point on, his account of his election to the Senate left out both Reagan and Ailes. This omission did not endear him with Ailes, or with others who had worked so hard on that high-pressure campaign. “McConnell read too much into himself instead of Ailes in the first case and Reagan in the second,” says Tarrance. The lack of gratitude became more glaring a few years later when McConnell put out word that he was going to make his 1984 team reapply for the job for his reelection, just as he had decided to shop around for new advisers after his county campaigns.

Tarrance found this obnoxious in the extreme. “We suddenly saw a different McConnell,” he said. “He was arrogant and disloyal to the people that put him there.” Tarrance flew up from Houston to meet with McConnell but found him “cold and arrogant and not very loyal to his team. He really pissed me off.” Tarrance told McConnell that he wasn’t going to take the job even if offered, and left. A McConnell aide called him at the airport to get him to change his mind, to no avail. Ailes grudgingly decided to stay on and do some ads for McConnell, though in a reduced capacity. “Ailes and I had put together a pretty good team, and it was like McConnell was breaking his team,” says Tarrance. “I’ll fight to the death, but not for someone I don’t believe in. Roger . . . said, ‘I’ll go and do it,’ but we both lost a lot of respect for him.”

The irony was, even as McConnell was seeking to downplay Reagan’s role in his election, he was working to align himself with the conservative president. Leading up to and during his campaign, the Ripon Society’s political arm, the New Leadership Fund, had touted McConnell as a moderate Republican on the rise. But on arriving in Washington, he confounded such expectations. He supported Reagan’s plan to arm the Contras against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. He won conservative plaudits for pushing tort reform proposals (he came up with a “Sue for a Million Award” gimmick to highlight egregious tort claims). He broke with the agreement Huddleston and his fellow Democratic senator Wendell Ford had crafted for picking federal judges in Kentucky, a judicial nominating commission that McConnell decided was undermining his and Reagan’s prerogative to select conservative judges.

And, to the dismay of Jessica Loving and his other abortion rights allies in Louisville, McConnell flipped to the pro-life side on votes such as blocking Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest. (Years later, Loving ran into McConnell at a cocktail party at the University of Louisville and told him, “By the way, I’ve never properly thanked you for what you did—you were the best elected official for the pro-choice issue,” to which, she recalls, “he got this pained look, his face got paler than usual and his lips got thinner than usual and he said, ‘You know, I don’t really want anyone to know that.’ ”)

Most strikingly, perhaps, McConnell took up the fight for his party against legislation that was championed by his fellow Kentucky senator, Wendell Ford, calling for expanding voter participation by allowing citizens to register to vote when getting their driver’s license. McConnell was candid about his reasons for opposing the “Motor Voter” bill—expanded voter registration helped Democrats, he said. He went so far as to suggest that low voter turnout was preferable in general: it is “a sign of the health of our democracy that people feel secure enough about the health of the country and about its leaders where they don’t have to obsess about politics all the time.” (A decade later, he would take the lead in pushing for voter identification requirements in the big 2002 election reform bill, thereby opening a major new front in his party’s push to limit access to the polls.)

McConnell had warned of a coming rightward tack as he prepared to run for Senate, telling Keith Runyon of the Courier-Journal, the husband of his former county aide Meme Runyon, that running for statewide office would require some adaptive coloration. “He told me he was going to change, because his electorate would change,” he says. But in later explaining to Kleber, the historian, and Dyche, the authorized biographer, the sheer extent of his rightward shift on arriving in Washington, McConnell pointed to a different explanation. Even if he had not been a Ronald Reagan man, he had watched Reagan win, and win big. The Senate Republican caucus he was arriving in was notably more conservative than it had been in the previous session. “The Capitol Hill rookie did not need a political compass to notice that the GOP had enjoyed considerable electoral success as it had moved rightward. Having gone with that flow, he now found himself in Washington,” writes Dyche, paraphrasing McConnell. “Ronald Reagan . . . provided a powerful example that conservatism could work both in practice and politically” and McConnell “saw [conservatism’s] adherents endure both bad polls and bad press and still win.”

For someone who had almost lost, and didn’t want to come that close to losing again, the moral of the story was clear.

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From The Cynic, by Alec MacGillis, copyright 2014 Stefan Alexander MacGillis. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster Inc.