Unwinding the Moronic Conspiracy to Nail Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in 2010.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re a fan of political jujitsu and jackassery, the Mitch McConnell/Mother Jones story has taken on the dimensions of a classic. To recap: On Tuesday, David Corn of Mother Jones published a taped recording from a McConnell campaign meeting, in which campaign staffers discussed secret plans to attack possible Democratic contender Ashley Judd on a host of vulnerabilities. McConnell’s campaign pushed back, calling this a “bugging” in the style of Watergate. Mother Jones responded, saying the magazine was “provided with the tape by a source who wishes to remain anonymous” and “it is our understanding that the tape was not the product of any kind of bugging operation.”

What had been a pretty lame package of revelations from a tape became a much better story about the possible illegal taping of a campaign office. (The lameness argued against the theory that a McConnell campaign mole had leaked it. Why blow your wad on 12 minutes of staffers making fun of a candidate who’d dropped out already?) On Thursday, a Kentucky NPR affiliate got a break in the story. Jacob Conway, a Democratic official in Jefferson County (Louisville), revealed that Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison of Progress Kentucky had “bragged to him about how they recorded the meeting,” which took place after a party at a new campaign office.

“They were in the hallway after the, I guess after the celebration and hoopla ended, apparently these people broke for lunch and had a strategy meeting, which is, in every campaign I’ve been affiliated with, makes perfect sense,” says Conway. “One of them held the elevator, the other one did the recording and they left. That was what they told to me from them directly.”

If this was true, the blitheringly incompenent Progress Kentucky had handed McConnell a gift – the second gift from them to him, actually. It was Progress Kentucky, a registered “Super PAC” that hasn’t actually raised money, that tweeted a conspiracy theory about McConnell’s wife, predicated on the fact that she was born in China. At his Tuesday press conference, McConnell blamed “the left” for “bugging” his office, and he was right. Republicans started digging into Kentucky law, with RNC spokesman Sean Spicer tweeting:

Legal Fun fact: Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 526.060 Divulging info obtained thru illegal eavesdropping is a crime, punishable a misdemeanor

So, Progress Kentucky may have broken the law, and broken it for no great gain, which is… totally unsurprising, considering. But conservatives in the NRSC and media are seeking to accuse David Corn of a crime. At the Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper quotes a “GOP operative” who says “If Corn knowingly took this tape from the ‘Louisville Plumbers’ he’s breaking the law here too.” But that’s not quite how it works. As Erik Wemple wrote on Tuesday, the 2001 Supreme Court precedent of Bartknicki v. Vopper effectively protects a media organization in a situation like this. “A stranger’s illegal conduct,” wrote John Paul Stevens, “does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.” As weak as MoJo’s story was, the Kentucky Senate race is a “matter of public concern.”

So the Get Corn campaign has started stretching. In the most meta post of the data, Jennifer Rubin cites Republican operatives to ask whether MoJo colluded with Democratic operatives, as liberals are wont to do.

Republicans are pointing to a report that left-wing groups met to plot out their attack strategy and that a non-editorial Mother Jones employee attended. However, there is no evidence that any particular escapade was discussed at the meeting. (Rather it smacks of the sort of JournoList conduct, a blurring of lefty pundits and Democratic operatives, we’ve seen before.)

When “no evidence” is dropped in the middle of a graf, the rest of the graf might have issues. Why do we know about that meeting? Because Mother Jones reported on it, calling it (heh) “the kind of meeting that conspiratorial conservative bloggers dream about.” Who was at the meeting? “Top brass from three dozen of the most powerful groups in liberal politics.” What was discussed? “Three goals: getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block legislation.” This is supposed to be the smoking gun:

[Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign] said the Kentucky battle would likely involve trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Public Enemy No. 1 for campaign finance reform, who faces reelection in 2014.

Well, okay – but was Progress Kentucky part of this plan? Sean Reilly hasn’t answered my call or email, but his LinkedIn page tells us that he took over in January 2013 – i.e., after the fateful December 2012 meeting. He was a delegate to the 2012 DNC, but not much of a player beyond some anti-Iraq War activism. Maybe he became the linchpin to beat McConnell. If it turns out that he got into the “Democracy Alliance” meeting, it’ll look that way. McConnell has been extraordinarily lucky in his enemies, but probably not that lucky.

UPDATE: Alex Seitz-Wald has more on the heaping pile of uselessness that is ProgressKY. It just stretches credibility that these guys would be let in on a top-level operation to defeat McConnell. Liberal donors want McConnell gone, yes, but there’s nothing connecting them to a group that barely hauled four figures worth of donations in 2012.