You can thank West Virginia senatorial candidate and coal magnate Don Blankenship for Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s bizarre nickname “cocaine Mitch.” Blankenship — who served a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal safety standards after 29 miners were killed at his company’s site in 2010 — pulled out the moniker during his bid for the Republican senate primary last year, referring to an incident in 2014 when a cargo vessel owned by McConnell’s father-in-law’s company was found leaving Colombia with 90 pounds of cocaine on board.
Pinning this on McConnell is laughable, which is probably why the senator has embraced the phrase as a fundraising tool. On Wednesday, ThinkProgress reported that, for a $35 donation, McConnell is selling T-shirts of a faceless figure surrounded by a cloud of powder on the front, and “Team Mitch Cartel Member” on the back. (The figure bears a similarity to promotional material for the Netflix series Narcos.)
If the T-shirts are a tactic to play off the momentum of an absurd political moment, they appear to ignore the on-the-ground reality for an alarming number of Kentucky residents. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the state had the third-highest age-adjusted rates of death by drug overdose in 2017. That year, Kentucky had a total of 1,566 drug overdoses. According to Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy, at least 51 of those deaths were due to cocaine.
McConnell has also painted himself as a leader in the fight against opioid abuse. His website features a page on McConnell’s work on the “drug epidemic,” listing major events in the senator’s efforts to combat opioid use, including “Senator McConnell Welcomes White House ‘Drug Czar’ to Kentucky.” “I make it a priority to invite Drug Czars to come here, so national policymakers can hear directly from those on the frontline of our fight against opioid and substance abuse,” McConnell said, announcing the visit.
As ThinkProgress notes, the shirts are tone deaf for a second reason:
McConnell is a strong supporter of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the deportation arm of the Department of Homeland Security which pursues cartel members and those involved in drug trafficking.
In a July 2018 op-ed for The Courier-Journal, McConnell criticized those calling for more oversight of ICE, which has been accused of abusive policies, and those calling for the agency to be abolished, praising its efforts to halt drug deaths and murders by cartels.
McConnell, who’s held his Senate seat in Kentucky since 1984, is unlikely to be ousted from his position — despite sporting a -13 net approval rating. Without a primary challenger or major Democrat in the race at this point, McConnell enjoys the advantage of a three-decade incumbent and the full backing of his party, in addition to his $3.5 million of cash on hand. Perhaps the T-shirts will top that number up a bit.