The Real Scandal In Kentucky? McConnell Is Vulnerable And Needs a Real Opponent

When a secret, closed-door conversation about campaign strategy is recorded, illegally, and put out in the public domain, it's a significant story about invasion of privacy that should generate media attention. But of course, the target of the recording in question was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), so naturally the liberal media are turning a critical eye on him rather than the group that made the illegal recording.


On Saturday’s Today, NBC brought on the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman to spin the controversy into a story about McConnell’s weaknesses and wrongdoings. Co-host Erica Hill started by asking if the conversation was recorded illegally. Fineman danced around the matter with an evasive answer: “Well, that's an open question... In Kentucky law and federal law it's possibly illegal, but that's open to question because the person recording it could also hear it.”

 


Having cast doubt on the illegality of the recording, Fineman then attempted to marginalize the organization believed to be responsible. Interestingly, neither Fineman nor Hill spoke the name of the group, Progress Kentucky. Hill referred to it only as “this liberal Kentucky super PAC.” However, according to Fineman, Progress Kentucky is not even worthy of that description: “Well, first of all, to call this a super PAC is an overstatement. These are two guys running around in Kentucky.”

Fineman then shed some light on Kentucky politics. Mitch McConnell, he said, is widely unpopular in the state. The veteran senator has been elected to five terms, but only because Kentucky Democrats can’t agree on someone to run against him. Said Fineman: “And into the vacuum goes this super PAC which is only a couple of guys running around trying to make mischief.”

I thought he said it was an overstatement to call them a super PAC? At any rate, to marginalize the power and impact of Progress Kentucky is to downplay the seriousness of what they have done. That was undoubtedly Fineman’s aim. Having brushed aside the liberal super PAC’s possible crime, Fineman made the story about McConnell. Hill played along with the spin: “And so you're saying that's the real issue here, is the fact that McConnell is vulnerable and there wasn’t anybody to run against him.”


 

Of course, there was more to the McConnell angle. Hill also mentioned that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wants the FBI and the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate McConnell. CREW's complaint is that McConnell’s Senate staffers should not have been discussing a campaign on government time. That is a minor ethical matter, to be sure, especially when compared with Progress Kentucky’s possibly illegal taping of a secret conversation. In addition, Hill referred to CREW as a “watchdog group,” but it is not exactly an impartial organization. CREW is backed by liberal donors and has overwhelmingly targeted Republicans in the past.

At the end of the segment, Fineman restated the issue as he saw it:
 

"[T]he key thing is here’s one of the most important Republicans, one of the most powerful Republicans and one of the most vulnerable Republicans, but Democrats in the state can't find anybody to run against him because he's a very tough customer. But he's actually managed to turn himself into a victim because of the shenanigans of what's going on in the state."


Say what? I think the more amazing feat is that Fineman has managed to take a Republican senator who may have been the victim of a crime and turn him into the villain. But hey, Fineman can’t help it. As a member of the liberal media, he’s just doing his job.

Below is a transcript of the segment:

ERICA HILL: A local super PAC in Kentucky has become the target of an investigation into a secret recording made at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign headquarters in Louisville. McConnell says his office was bugged, comparing it to Watergate. His team was recorded as they discussed the best ways to sink a possible run by Ashley Judd, including questioning her mental health and her views on religion. Well the group has now suspected – that local group now suspected of being behind the recordings. Here to help us weed through this a little more is Howard Fineman. He’s the editorial director of the Huffington Post, and you know Kentucky politics quite well, we should point out. So the FBI is now investigating the taping of this conversation. Was it recorded illegally?

HOWARD FINEMAN: Well, that's an open question. The guy who I think did it was outside the closed locked room where Mitch McConnell and his aides were discussing the campaign. But this person could hear what was going on and taped it either with a smartphone or some device, and it’s – in Kentucky law and federal law it's possibly illegal but that's open to question because the person recording it could also hear it.



HILL: So that’s one of the things they’re looking at. There are two men suspected of involvement here, we should point out. Both of them who are associated with this liberal Kentucky super PAC. One of them we actually haven't been able to reach despite our best efforts. The other one, Shawn Reilly, his attorney says he was in the building. He didn't record it. There's a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that wants the FBI and the Senate Ethics Committee, though, to investigate Senator Mitch McConnell over some of the comments that were made and everything else that happened. Let's be honest, though: politics is never pretty. So what's going on on that end?

FINEMAN: Well, first of all, to call this a super PAC is an overstatement. These are two guys running around in Kentucky. What you need to know about Kentucky is that Mitch McConnell is a five-term senator, but he’s never been that popular. He has a 36% approval rating in the state. But the Democrats in Kentucky can't agree on someone to run against McConnell. And nature abhors a vacuum and so does politics. And into the vacuum goes this super PAC which is only a couple of guys running around trying to make mischief. So that's sort of what's going on in the state. And the question is whether they can get together anything to run against McConnell in this race.

HILL: And so you're saying that's the real issue here is the fact that McConnell is vulnerable and there wasn’t anybody to run against him.

FINEMAN: Right. And legally, what CREW is saying is that the people behind those closed doors were active staffers on the Senate, and they shouldn't have been using their Senate time to discuss a campaign race.

HILL: Because even as a Senate staffer you are allowed to volunteer –  

FINEMAN: But the question is whether you are doing it on government time or not. Again, it’s picayune stuff, but the key thing is here’s one of the most important Republicans, one of the most powerful Republicans and one of the most vulnerable Republicans, but Democrats in the state can't find anybody to run against him because he's a very tough customer. But he's actually managed to turn himself into a victim because of the shenanigans of what's going on in the state.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.