The 2020 Candidates Got Together to Discuss One of Their Biggest Threats. No, Not Donald Trump.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The name that loomed over Saturday’s “Our Rights, Our Courts” candidate forum in Concord, New Hampshire was not Donald Trump. It was Mitch McConnell.

The wily Republican Senate leader has bedeviled the Democrats for years. He denied Barack Obama a Supreme Court Justice, then helped to deliver Trump two. He invoked the “nuclear option” to push through the president’s executive branch nominees and pack the federal courts with ideologues, including a number deemed unqualified for the bench by the American Bar Association. Most recently, he secured the president’s impeachment acquittal in the Senate by, in part, ensuring the proceedings were free of new testimony. 

“As president, how would you deal with Mitch McConnell?” That question, or variations of it, was asked repeatedly of the candidates at the “Our Rights” forum—sponsored by a quartet of progressive groups, including Demand Justice, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and NARAL. Most offered a similar—if somewhat facile—reply: The six-term Kentucky senator must be dethroned in his upcoming reelection race or, with his Republican colleagues, demoted to the minority.

This, of course, is much easier said than done.

“Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “We need to to put McConnell out of a job.”

“I will not concede that Mitch McConnell will be the leader,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said,  pointing to the Kentucky senator’s Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who in 2018 mounted an unsuccessful House bid. “Two Amys are better than one!”

“The only way this will change is if we engage the American people to ensure there is a political consequence,” said former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, when asked how he’d deal with McConnell and his GOP Senate. Translation: vote McConnell out or seize a Senate majority. “If we can’t change Congress, we’re screwed,” he added.

For the Democrats, reclaiming the Senate is an uphill climb. McConnell, for his part, ranks among the most unpopular senators in America. (Kentucky also had the dubious honor of having one of the nation’s least popular governors, Matt Bevin, who lost his reelection bid in November.) While potentially vulnerable, McConnell is still much more likely than not to retain his seat. That means if the Democratic nominee succeeds in ousting Trump, he or she may still have McConnell and his Senate majority to contend with.

In other words, they’re kinda screwed. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders said McConnell—and Trump—deserved some credit for their success in pushing the judiciary to the right. “They were well organized; they knew what they were doing. As a member of the Senate, I can tell you, you know what we do every day? We vote for right-wing, extremist judges.” He also noted that Democrats should study the Republican playbook: “We can learn some lessons from what the right-wing is doing in this country.”

The forum’s moderators—MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle and HuffPost‘s Jennifer Bendery—pressed Tom Steyer on how he would navigate McConnell and a Republican-controlled Senate. He first said that he didn’t accept the assumption that the Republicans would retain control of the Senate next year. Finally, noting that Obama had repeatedly tried to compromise with McConnell only to be obstructed, he responded: “I would assume from day one that this was a fight. Mitch McConnell has not one time put the country ahead of his party. Not one time.” He added, “Why does everyone ask Democrats how we’re going to meet in the middle and how we’re going to compromise? Why does no one ever call up Mitch McConnell and say, ‘Hey Mitch, when are you going to compromise?’ This is what we do. Democrats keep thinking the Republicans are like us. They’re not. I don’t want to be like them. They’re not like us.”

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