Syd Weedon first met Mitch McConnell at a 1978 prayer luncheon in Louisville, Kentucky, when the now–Senate majority leader was serving in his first elected office. Over the years, the retired Presbyterian minister and lifelong Democrat would regularly run into McConnell at the local Kroger store. “I’ve stared at him, eye to eye, over the oranges before,” Weedon told Intelligencer.
But until this year, Weedon had never opened his wallet in an attempt to defeat McConnell. Like those of thousands of Americans, his first donation to the Kentucky Democratic Party (KDP) was spurred by a phenomenally successful new line of merchandise built around the one nickname the self-professed “Grim Reaper” doesn’t embrace: Moscow Mitch.
Wednesday marks two weeks since the KDP began selling its line of Moscow Mitch merch, headlined by a red T-shirt with the slogan “Just say nyet to Moscow Mitch.” In that time, the party, which is also selling beer koozies, shot glasses, and Cossack-style hats, has brought in $500,000 on 13,526 unique sales. Each of those is a donation to the KDP, and more than 90 percent have come from people like Weedon who have never before given to the state party.
“We knew he was underwater, but this really gave us an indication of how angry the people are,” said Nicole Erwin, communications director for the KDP. She added that the Moscow Mitch items are the largest merch campaign the party has ever done. “It blows everything else out of the water,” she said.
Erwin traced the idea for the Moscow Mitch merch back to Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony last month. The former special counsel warned of the Russian government’s continued “efforts to interfere in our election,” and McConnell, who had infamously stopped the Obama administration from making a bipartisan condemnation of Russian election interference in 2016, responded by blocking two pieces of election-security legislation in the Senate.
His moves drew criticism from the likes of Dana Milbank, who called McConnell a “Russian asset” in the pages of the Washington Post, and Joe Scarborough, who accused “Moscow Mitch” of “aiding and abetting Putin’s ongoing attempts to subvert U.S. democracy” on MSNBC.
By Tuesday, July 30, the New York Times reported that McConnell was enraged by the nickname, and on Wednesday, July 31, the KDP started taking orders for its merch.
“We felt like the KDP was in a really unique position to hold the Senate majority leader accountable,” Erwin said. “We’ve really seen the sales take off, and we feel like it’s largely because we have this warning that we need to do something to ramp up election security. And even though bipartisan election security has been proposed, Mitch McConnell refuses to take a stand.”
Ironically, the senator known for his aggressive lack of personality is no stranger to moving merch. His own campaign had success earlier this year with a “Cocaine Mitch” shirt that appropriated an insult from former coal baron and failed West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship. Two weeks after McConnell’s reelection campaign began selling the swag, it reported making more than $70,000. (The campaign did not respond to a request for updated figures.)
The difference between the “Cocaine Mitch” and “Moscow Mitch” nicknames, other than a few hundred thousand dollars, is McConnell’s preference for the former over the latter. In fact, as he said in late July, it’s actually the people calling him Moscow Mitch who are abetting the Kremlin. “American pundits calling an American official treasonous because of a policy disagreement — if anything is an asset to the Russians, it is disgusting behavior like that,” McConnell said.
His distaste for the nickname has no doubt juiced sales of the gear, as has his emergence as the second-most-hated Republican in the country. Erwin says Moscow Mitch merch has been shipped to nearly 100 of Kentucky’s 120 counties and to all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.
Clint Stevens is among the outsiders who have made an order. The Orangeburg, South Carolina, resident said via Twitter direct message that it’s clear McConnell “prefers Russian interference in our elections.”
“I ordered 3 #MoscowMitch tee shirts to wear, and to support the Kentucky Democratic Party as they try to unseat McConnell, a Russian-supported traitor to our country,” he said.
*Full disclosure: My wife is a Democrat in the Kentucky State House.