WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell has long been a pre-eminent defender of a role in politics for corporate America, welcoming its participation and, most importantly, its money. So it astounded many this week when he cried foul over Major League Baseball and companies like Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines jumping into the fray against Georgia’s new voting restrictions.
“If I were running a major corporation, I’d stay out of politics,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, said while warning of “consequences” for the private sector if it sided with Democrats and “far-left mobs” opposing new limits to ballot access.
Democrats quickly roasted Mr. McConnell, noting that he has personally flourished by virtue of undisclosed, unlimited corporate donations to Republican political efforts.
“He has no problem with all of them weighing in in support of the Trump tax cuts,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who has long battled Mr. McConnell over disclosure of donations. “He has no problem with them weighing in with laws to discourage unions. When they weigh in on behalf of voters, that crosses a line.”
On Wednesday, Mr. McConnell conceded a failure to communicate.
“I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday,” he said at an event in Paducah, Ky., where he insisted that corporate critics were misinformed and acting on distorted portrayals of the Georgia law provided by no less a figure than President Biden. “They are certainly entitled to be involved in politics,” he said. “So my complaint about the C.E.O.s: Read the damn bill.”
His misstep aside, it should be no surprise that Mr. McConnell, who has built his political image on fighting campaign finance restrictions, is embracing a role as the No. 1 foe of a campaign spending overhaul and voting rights expansion bill being pushed by Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats.
In meetings with colleagues, speeches and media appearances, he has been blistering the wide-ranging plan he views as an existential threat to his party’s future, one he claims is based on a “big lie” that Republicans in Georgia and other states are employing racist tactics reminiscent of the Jim Crow era to limit voting.
The phrase — the same one Democrats have used to describe former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — suggests that Mr. McConnell is planning a full-scale effort to define the voting rights bill as corrupt and a blatant power grab.
“Our challenge, of course, is they are going to make this about race somehow, they are going to make this about turnout somehow,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview. “It is about neither. It is about a partisan effort to rewrite the rules in a way they think benefits them.”
The Democratic legislation in Congress is aimed at countering statutes like Georgia’s and proposals in other Republican-led states to tighten voter eligibility and ballot access after Mr. Trump’s loss. Many Republicans attribute his defeat to pandemic-imposed changes last year, including easier voting by mail and extended early voting, and to a failure to enforce strict voter verification. They are racing to clamp down to prevent a repeat.
Mr. McConnell called the scope of the voting rights bill moving through Congress — which would alter how local elections are conducted, limit undisclosed money, stiffen campaign law enforcement and assert Washington jurisdiction over statewide redistricting, among other fundamental changes — “jaw-droppingly audacious.”
“To give them credit,” he said of Democrats, “they didn’t leave out a single thing they thought would advantage them and disadvantage us.”
Mr. McConnell’s obsession with campaign law dates to before he was in Congress, when he taught a course on political science at the University of Louisville in the 1970s. In the years since, he has carved out a position as the party’s leading and sometimes lonely voice against tighter campaign laws.
Many fellow Republicans shared his views but were not willing to be as public as Mr. McConnell on a matter some considered politically problematic. His work on campaign rules helped him rise to Senate leader.
“It is something I feel strongly about,” he said. “I’ve had an interest in this for most of my life before I even came to the Senate.”
He celebrated the fact that his opponents in past campaign finance fights had called him Darth Vader — the dark force opposed to a more accountable system. He took Senator John McCain, his Republican colleague from Arizona, all the way to the Supreme Court in 2003 in a losing fight to overturn the law that bore Mr. McCain’s name. But Mr. McConnell felt vindicated when the makeup of the court changed and much of the law was overturned in the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Mr. McConnell says the conflict is about protecting speech and First Amendment rights under the Constitution. But to his opponents — and there are many — this is about political might, and Mr. McConnell making that sure the money he depends on keeps flowing to protect his position in the Senate.
“He has been very focused on maintaining power,” said Russ Feingold, the Democratic former senator from Wisconsin who shared top billing on the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign legislation that Mr. McConnell fiercely opposed. “He would tell you that he cares about this on First Amendment grounds, but the truth is he likes access to as much undisclosed contributions as possible to maintain his position as majority leader.”
Democrats say Mr. McConnell finds himself playing defense this time, as shown by the fact that some of his usual corporate allies are deserting him.
“For once in his political life, corporations are on the opposite side of an issue from him,” Mr. Van Hollen said.
In contrast from past showdowns, however, Mr. McConnell seems to enjoy the full support of his Republican colleagues, who are collectively outraged about the Democratic initiative.
“He is highly engaged in this,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, which is considering the Democratic bill. “He understands the constitutional and structural danger and irreversible potential of these kinds of changes.”
With momentum for action in Washington growing out of what Democrats see as an unwarranted Republican crackdown in the states, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Blunt are taking aim at what they believe are distortions and exaggerations about the Georgia law. Mr. McConnell is eager to point out that fact checkers faulted Mr. Biden for getting aspects of the Georgia law wrong.
“If you look at the actual law, it actually expands voting rights,” said Mr. McConnell, who also noted that Georgians would have more opportunity to vote under the new statute than residents of many other states that are not seeing corporate boycotts.
While there are disagreements about the effect of specific provisions of the voting changes in Georgia and proposals being advanced elsewhere, Democrats and independent election experts say the efforts being undertaken in the name of election integrity are aimed at holding down voting opportunities, particularly for minorities who tend to favor Democrats.
Mr. McConnell disputed that idea.
“People are not being denied the right to vote anywhere in America,” said Mr. McConnell, who noted that presidential turnout last year was the highest since 1900. “Nobody should buy this notion that this is somehow about voter suppression. They are also playing the race card, which shows how desperate they are to shame people into voting for this monstrosity.”
For all his opposition, Mr. McConnell is not ruling out that Democrats could advance the initiative, which would require a rules change to overcome a Republican filibuster and its 60-vote requirement to move forward. Even if it somehow became law, Mr. McConnell indicated that he would be first in line to try to overturn it before a more sympathetic audience.
“Hopefully political speech and the First Amendment will prevail in a more neutral format — in court,” he said. “We’ve fortunately have had good judgment, I think, on the whole by the court system over the years that have kept us restrained from doing the kinds of things they are trying to do.”