McConnell capitalizes on attack with 'Cocaine Mitch' shirts

BRUCE SCHREINER

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is capitalizing on a fellow Republican's attack by selling "Cocaine Mitch" shirts on his campaign's website.

The Kentucky lawmaker's 2020 reelection campaign tweeted Wednesday that McConnell was closing in on one of his biggest fundraising days of the year thanks to sales of the bright red T-shirts, which feature a faceless, dark-haired figure over the name "MITCH" with a sprinkling of cocaine. On the back, they say "TEAM MITCH" and "CARTEL MEMBER."

Buyers are urged to "join the 'Team Mitch Cartel'" by purchasing the $35 shirts, and donating up to $2,800 per election. The campaign claimed they were "flying off the shelves."

Don Blankenship coined the "Cocaine Mitch" moniker in a campaign ad during his failed Senate run from West Virginia last year. He was referring to a 2014 magazine article alleging that drugs were found aboard a commercial cargo ship owned by the family of McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who serves as President Donald Trump's transportation secretary.

Blankenship, who served prison time for conspiring to violate mine safety standards after 29 men died in an explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine, said he was responding to false, negative ads that McConnell's "swamp people" ran against him.

McConnell referenced the "Cocaine Mitch" attack in a parting shot last year mocking Blankenship's election loss. Using a poster from the Netflix series "Narcos," the McConnell campaign photoshopped the Senate leader's head onto the body of the actor portraying Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

It's not the first time McConnell has embraced negative labels and images that might have doomed other politicians. He acknowledged years ago that supporters of a campaign finance reform bill saw him as Darth Vader, while the bill's opponents saw him as Luke Skywalker.

Now he seems to be embracing the dark side: "I will be the 'grim reaper' in the Senate when it comes to socialist schemes that would destroy jobs, private health insurance and the free enterprise system," McConnell tweeted Wednesday.

A spokesman for the senator's campaign, Josh Holmes, said Thursday that they've received more than 1,000 orders for the shirts, and added bumper stickers to accommodate demand.

"Senator McConnell proves every election cycle that having a sense of humor is the most valuable and least abundant commodity in politics," Holmes said. "He managed to turn a slanderous attack on his family into an online movement of his supporters."

Not everyone found McConnell's stunt funny.

Tanya Meeks, an anti-drug activist in Lexington, Kentucky, criticized the senator on social media, saying: "The shirts aren't just offensive, they're a painful and cruel joke to those of us grieving a terrible loss or fighting desperately to save a loved one."

Her 19-year-old son died from a heroin overdose in 2014.

Meeks, a registered Democrat, started an online petition calling on McConnell to stop the shirt sales and to donate the money to drug treatment centers.