Mitch McConnell, Second Senate Leader from Kentucky: A Dissent


Senator McConnell’s recent campaign ad has once again got me hot under the collar.  No, it is not any particular claim he makes (that would be a different blog), but instead something that he has repeated in every commercial since he began ad buys at the beginning of 2008: that he is “only the second Senate leader from Kentucky” (the other being Alben W. Barkley). 

Admittedly, this claim is backed up by the Senate Historical Office which dates the history of this title (arbitrarily, I believe) back until 1920 when they declare that the title “leader” was formally applied to the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican caucuses.  This clearly neglects the increasing importance of this party office in Senate politics starting at the end of the 19th century and at the same removes three additional Kentuckians from the roll of leaders: John W. Stevenson (1873-77), James B. Beck (1885-90) and Joseph C. S. Blackburn (1906-07).  Moreover, this determination ignores what some of these men were actually called by the press: leader.

The reason that Senate historians have fixed on the 1920 date is that it is admittedly hard to determine when the caucus chair went from being a mere presiding officer to the chief organizer of the party’s legislative activity.  It is fairly clear that former Kentucky governor Stevenson’s role when he held the Democratic Senate caucus chair in the 1870s was to gavel the infrequent meetings to order.  However, when Jo Blackburn let loose the leadership reins in 1907, his fellow Democrats prepared to jockey for a position of real power.  

Reading through contemporary accounts of the caucus chairmanships of Senators Beck and Blackburn in the free New York Times archive (1851-1923), it is clear to me that McConnell is the fourth, not second Kentucky Senate leader, and that if re-elected he needs to give his other predecessors their due. 

Leader Blackburn (with senatorial 'stache):