Mitch McConnell wants to keep the conversation centered around inflation and not culture war issues as the midterms approach.
In this Sept. 7, 2022, file photo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Credit: Mariam Zuhaib / AP

WASHINGTON — The Louisville mother who has sketched out a plan just to pay for groceries. The Nevada office worker who has replaced her children’s juice with water. The Arizona family forced to the food bank to put dinner on the table.

These are the stories Mitch McConnell wants at the forefront of America’s political mindset in the final 50-some days before an election that’s developing into one of the most unpredictable midterm campaigns of the modern era.

But while the economy and inflation remain the top concern of voters, McConnell is also contending with a twin set of powerful cultural issues — abortion rights and gay marriage — that are complicating his path back to majority leader.

“The media may have grown somewhat numb to month after month of 8 and 9 percent inflation, but working Americans have not had the luxury of growing numb,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “The pain gets worse every single time they have to fill a shopping cart or pay their credit card bill.”

To amplify the urgency of the message, he even wrote a column his office asked media outlets to consider printing titled, “The Democrats Who Run Washington Have No Plans to Fight Inflation.”

As U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added rocket fuel to the fury over abortion rights this week by introducing a national ban and members of his caucus were simultaneously pressured on legislation to codify gay marriage, McConnell strained to keep to the script of blaming Democrats for people’s plummeting purchasing power.

“Our colleagues across the aisle created this human catastrophe,” he said. “And they aren’t even trying to stop it.”

Josh Holmes, a top outside political adviser to McConnell shared his frustration with the media’s focus on a “proposed 15-week abortion restriction that has next to zero chance of becoming law.”

But the reignition of the abortion issue was triggered by McConnell’s own GOP colleague and it demonstrates the limits of imposing top-down message discipline over a 50-member caucus with varying political and ideological interests.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that abortion has become a leading motivator for voters, even if its not the preeminent one. A national Fox News survey of registered voters released this week found that while a majority 59 percent said they were extremely concerned with inflation and higher prices, 45 percent said the same about abortion policy.

A new New York Times poll found that voters trust Republicans on economic issues by a margin of 14 points, 52 percent to 38 percent. But Democrats wield a 55-point advantage among those who cited societal issues like abortion and democracy as their most important voting issue.

“The reason Democrats are talking about abortion is they started in a hole with their own base and it serves to help with that,” said Mike Shields, a former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. “And they should be talking about things [President] Biden signed into law, but they can’t because those wins bring them back to a discussion on inflation and the economy so they have to talk about abortion as a distraction from their own wins.”

McConnell clearly has little interest in litigating Graham’s abortion bill, potentially even if Republicans retake control of the Senate next year.

McConnell and Republicans appear to have dodged a pre-election vote on providing a federal shield for gay marriages, as members of his caucus continue to balk at supporting the measure.

With fears that the Supreme Court could invalidate the civil right, Democrats were planning on a vote next week, but scrapped that timeline due to insufficient GOP support. The bill will require 60 senators, which means 10 Republicans have not yet signed on.

McConnell has not weighed in on how he’ll vote and said he’s waiting to evaluate the bill’s specifics.

Still, the GOP won’t be able to escape abortion as Democrats continue to place it at the centerpiece of their fall campaigns.

In New Hampshire, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan’s first ad of the general election uses McConnell’s image throughout the 30 seconds to position her opponent as “anti-choice” and set to “push for a nationwide ban on abortion.”

McConnell invoked New Hampshire on the Senate floor this week, but only to highlight the rising price of heating oil there.

Story by David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau.