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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters at the Capitol, on March 8, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Democrats' new 'boogeyman' on abortion: Mitch McConnell

In Senate campaigns, Democratic candidates are using McConnell as a foil in their ads targeting their opponents on abortion rights.

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In key Senate races across the country, Democrats are framing their TV-centered arguments for abortion rights around one man — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Both Democratic candidates and outside groups supporting them in states such as Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington and New Hampshire have linked abortion with McConnell, R-Ky., in recent TV ads, according to an NBC News review.

In Washington, an ad from Sen. Patty Murray's campaign frames her Republican opponent, Tiffany Smiley, as "Mitch McConnell's hand-picked candidate." In Nevada, the Senate Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats, said in an ad that electing Republican Adam Laxalt over Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto "means giving Mitch McConnell the power to pass a nationwide ban on abortion." And in New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan's campaign cut an ad photoshopping her GOP opponent, Don Bolduc, standing near McConnell as a narrator described "anti-choice Republicans," who would push for “a nationwide ban on abortion.”

Since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in June, at least $1.92 million has been spent on television ads mentioning McConnell and abortion, according to AdImpact tracking.

It makes sense that Senate Democrats would include McConnell in their abortion ads, seeing as he is the most likely Republican to lead the Senate should Republicans reclaim the chamber. But the strategy of making McConnell — rather than another Republican, like former President Donald Trump — the face of the abortion rights campaign was notable for some Republicans.

"They found their boogeyman in 2022 election, and it’s McConnell, not Trump," a Republican working on Senate races told NBC News. "And what it tells me is that McConnell’s poll numbers are much worse than Trump’s."

This person noted the ad campaign brought back memories of the 2018 campaign, when Democrats ran on protecting the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, the guarantee that those with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance. That effort did not center Trump, rather, it took aim at congressional Republicans.

"Democrats are so desperate to deflect voter anger over their mismanagement of the economy, crime, and the border that they’re pushing fake narratives about abortion," Jack Pandol, communications director at the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, told NBC News in a statement. "It won’t work."

McConnell himself has sought to keep abortion rights out of the midterm campaigns, hoping to make the elections a pure referendum on President Joe Biden’s performance, disenchantment with the economy and crime. But Roe’s overturning, and the uncertain future of abortion rights, has energized voters. With Republicans feeling heat on the campaign trail, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced legislation that would bar abortions at 15 weeks nationally.

At the time, McConnell distanced himself from the bill, telling reporters: “Most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”

The prevalence of McConnell in these ads may also be a downstream affect of he and Trump not exactly seeing eye-to-eye. McConnell's favorability ratings have dropped with Republicans as Trump has repeatedly assailed him publicly, leaving him with lower numbers than the former president, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

According to a YouGov tracking survey from this month, McConnell is viewed favorably by 20.5% of voters, with 64.6 percent taking a unfavorable view of the Senate minority leader. That compares to a 41.7% to 54.8% split for Trump, a 44.4% to 51.8% split for Biden and a 35.8% to 56.3% split for Pelosi.

"It’s just basic math," a second national Republican strategist said, pointing to McConnell's polling as reason why Democrats have highlighted him in the campaign, adding, "And it's interesting that Trump is not the guy they're using in their ads."

Veronica Yoo, communications director for the Senate Majority PAC, alluded to McConnell's polling in discussing ads the group cut.

"We’re making sure voters know exactly what Senate Republicans would do if they’re in charge: elect the most deeply unpopular politician in the country to lead them in passing a nationwide abortion ban that is grossly out of step with the will of the American public,” she said.