How Roger Ailes Helped Launch Mitch McConnell’s Senate Career
Long before Roger Ailes stepped down from his post at the helm of Fox News in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, he was a political operative working for Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell.
Ailes passed away on Thursday at the age of 77.
Back in 1984, he made a notorious advertisement featuring a gaggle of hound dogs that helped launch McConnell’s career in Washington.
“Nobody thought Mitch McConnell was going to beat Dee Huddleston,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Mitch McConnell was the judge-executive of Jefferson County and challenging two-term Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston.
Back then, Kentucky was heavily Democratic — though the GOP was budding in the state; Kentucky voted for Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and would again in 1984.
Still, Cross says the Republicans were in the “wilderness” farther down the ballot.
“He was 40 points behind with two months to go," Cross said. "But then they put up this hound dog ad and it made people laugh.”
McConnell hired Ailes to jumpstart his campaign and the move paid off — Ailes convinced McConnell to run the now-legendary ads, which featured a team of bloodhounds searching for Huddleston because he missed senate votes to make paid speeches.
(Though Huddleston did make paid speeches, he had a 94 percent voting record according to a Newsweek article cited in the 2014 McConnell biography The Cynic.)
In his autobiography, McConnell called hiring Ailes “one of the smartest moves I made,” but said he initially though the ad campaign was “insane.”
In his 2016 autobiography, "The Long Game," McConnell wrote:
Partly assisted by the coattails of Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984, McConnell ended up winning the election by less than half of a percentage point.
Though, as McConnell points out in his book, he was the only Republican to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year.
Scott Jennings, a former McConnell strategist, said McConnell’s 1984 victory was a critical point for Republicans in Kentucky.
“That was the moment when the Republican Party started to become a viable alternative to Democrats in the state,” Jennings said. “Of course all these years later it is the dominant party.”
Though Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the number of voters registered in the state, the GOP has increasingly dominated the state’s ballot boxes with the help of an increasingly powerful McConnell.
Jennings said that Ailes’ ad for McConnell was successful because it made dry politics entertaining.
“If you asked most people if they want to watch political ads, ‘no’ would be the answer. But that’s an ad people wanted to watch and heck we’re still talking about it all these years later,” Jennings said. “I think Ailes’ legacy is in the production of content that people actually wanted to watch. And to make something that no one else had made yet.”
Ailes had a more limited role in McConnell’s 1990 campaign and in 1996 formed Fox News, which he oversaw until stepping down last year amid a string of sexual harassment accusations from current and former employees.