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What does Sen. Mitch McConnell giving up his leadership post mean for Kentucky?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Mitch McConnell has been the Senate's GOP leader since 2007. That's a record. But he's represented Kentucky for far longer, four decades, and helped steer millions of dollars in investment to his home state. Now that he's planning to give up his leadership post in November, we wanted to hear more about what this might mean for Kentucky. Joining us is Stephen Voss. He specializes in the politics of his state at the University of Kentucky. Stephen, so how has McConnell shaped Kentucky's political identity?

STEPHEN VOSS: When McConnell started early in his career, this state was dominated by Democrats, I mean, the legislative branches here, all the statewide elected offices here, most of our congressional delegation. He was the lone Republican success, but he was focused on party building. And he directed a lot of resources, as he gained in power, toward making this the Republican, really super majority Republican, state that it became.

MARTÍNEZ: What's he best known for in his home state?

VOSS: I mean, he's an old-school legislator, not the one - not the sort who built himself up through big speeches on the hot button issues of the day, one who focused on bringing home the bacon, on constituency service, so that he could keep his job. And so that's what he's known for. You know, at any given four-year period, there were one or two projects that a Kentuckian could rattle off that McConnell had helped to get money for, and that's what he publicized is service to his constituents.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the tobacco buyout - right? - in 2004? Tell us about that.

VOSS: That would be an example. But, you know, voters have short memories, so y'all always need new ones.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

VOSS: These days, they would talk about the money he helped secure for the Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. What did Kentucky gain from leader McConnell that might not have been possible from just Senator McConnell?

VOSS: You know, even when McConnell was leading the minority rather than the majority, because of the way the Senate works, you know, he had to be one of the few people in the room when the big bills were getting nailed down, when they were trying to get unanimous consent agreements to move forward legislation. And so he could, you know, direct funds, make sure to protect one or two projects that were priorities for Kentucky and that they got through. Just having an effective senator or an ambitious one, if that senator is not in the room, you're not getting the same benefits as when you have a leader.

MARTÍNEZ: So Kentucky, I mean, stands to lose a lot of clout.

VOSS: That's right. I mean, when your folks are up in the leadership, they can help out the state using federal funds. And of course, there are a lot of federal funds.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, Nancy Pelosi is no longer the House speaker. It still feels like she has a lot of sway in the Democratic Party, I mean, and not just in California, everywhere in the Democratic Party. Will Mitch McConnell have the same effect with Republicans now that he's not in leadership?

VOSS: You know, I want to say no. And that's partly because of the Republican Party, because of the divisions within it. But it's also just nature of the House versus the Senate. You don't need to be able to control every last House member to have real influence over party unity. In the Senate, you need your caucus almost entirely unified because of the way they do business. And that's become so hard these days.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Last year, McConnell appeared to freeze a couple of times when he was speaking to reporters. Are his constituents worried about his health and maybe his ability to effectively represent them?

VOSS: Yes, I think much as people nationwide, Kentuckians were starting to worry that McConnell wasn't up to the job anymore. If he had - you know, if he had tried to keep pushing on in leadership, he may have started to have trouble with his constituents. But, you know, he's also got another problem with his constituents, which is that the party has moved rightward a lot. McConnell was never popular, but he could hold on because he did such hard work for the state. It's getting harder and harder for that sort of problem-solving sort of legislator to satisfy constituents as we've become more polarized and more ideological.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. Professor, thanks.

VOSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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