Even with McGrath’s stunning fundraising numbers and in a year widely expected to be good for Democrats, McConnell was a favorite in the race. Kentucky is a very conservative state, which President Donald Trump won by nearly 30 points in 2016. The polling consistently showed McConnell ahead, sometimes by double digits, and FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gave McConnell a 95 percent chance to win.
Still, McConnell could lose in another way: With other Senate races across the country, it’s possible — even likely, based on the FiveThirtyEight forecast — that Democrats could win control of the Senate. That would effectively demote McConnell from majority leader to minority leader. That’s not a role McConnell is unfamiliar with, given that he was minority leader from 2007 to 2015, but it would give McConnell much less power.
McConnell did a lot with the power of the minority during President Barack Obama’s time in office, leveraging the filibuster — which effectively requires a supermajority of 60 out of 100 senators to get major legislation done — to block much of Obama’s and Democrats’ agenda. This time, it might be different: Democrats have talked about repealing the filibuster if they take the Senate. That would greatly diminish any hold that McConnell and his caucus have over the body as the minority.
As majority leader, McConnell’s most notable accomplishment was packing the courts with Republican nominees. By blocking Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court, and soon after, getting Trump-nominated Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench, McConnell helped secure Republican control of the court. Then, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, McConnell rammed the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate — giving conservatives a 6-3 majority.
While the Supreme Court was the most visible example of McConnell’s victory over the courts, the Trump administration and McConnell teamed up to fill lower court seats too — largely thanks to McConnell’s earlier refusal to fill judicial vacancies with Obama nominees. When Fox News commentator Sean Hannity said in October that he was “shocked” Obama failed to fill so many court openings, McConnell responded, “I’ll tell you why: I was in charge of what we did the last two years of the Obama administration.”
McConnell also shepherded key elements of Trump’s agenda. Most notably, he helped pass an unpopular tax bill, which disproportionately benefited wealthy Americans, by using a legislative maneuver known as “reconciliation” to bypass the filibuster. He tried to use the same strategy to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), but that failed to get enough Republican votes to pass.
All of this could now backfire as Democrats are now discussing institutional changes and reforms that would have been nonstarters a decade ago. All the talk of ending the filibuster reflects that. Democrats are also considering other steps that could help erase McConnell’s achievements, including making Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico states — which would bolster the Democratic majority — and adding more seats to the Supreme Court, creating new vacancies Democrats could fill.
In that sense, McConnell may see the political backlash to his leadership style and the undoing of much of what he’s done in the next few years. As Ezra Klein explained for Vox:
Under McConnell, the Senate has been run according to a simple principle: Parties should use as much power as they have to achieve the outcomes they desire. This would have been impossible in past eras, when parties were weaker and individual senators stronger, when political interests were more rooted in geography and media wasn’t yet nationalized. But it is possible now, and it is a dramatic transformation of the Senate as an institution, with reverberations McConnell cannot control and that his party may come to regret. Indeed, McConnell’s single most profound effect on the Senate may be what he convinces Democrats to do in response to his machinations.
So with the Election Day results, McConnell will keep his seat. But that may not be enough, if Democrats take the Senate, to save his legacy.