Kentucky has been one of the states his hardest by drug addiction in recent years, with some of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths. Meanwhile, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is selling T-shirts branding him “Cocaine Mitch” as a fundraiser for his 2020 re-election campaign.
The nickname stems from the 2018 West Virginia Republican Senate primary. In that race, coal baron Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who served a one-year sentence in federal prison for conspiring to violate mine safety rules, ran ads promising to replace McConnell as the Senate’s GOP leader. The spots, which referred to the majority leader as “Cocaine Mitch,” attempted to tie McConnell — without any evidence — to a drug smuggling operation involving a company cargo ship owned by his wife’s family.
Blankenship lost badly in the primary and was unsuccessful in his attempts to make the general election ballot as an independent.
McConnell’s re-election committee is celebrating the first anniversary of the ads by making a joke out of the “Cocaine Mitch” nickname and selling commemorative T-shirts that show a faceless black and white image of the Kentucky Republican covered with cocaine powder and the words “Cartel Member” across the back.
The image resembles a promotional photo from the Netflix series Narcos, about a drug cartel in Colombia, which McConnell mimicked in another campaign ad following Blankenship’s primary defeat last May.
For just a $35 campaign donation, supporters are invited to “join the Team Mitch Cartel” and receive their very own shirt.
A year ago, a legend was born. Own your piece of history. #CocaineMitch
— Team Mitch (@Team_Mitch) May 8, 2019
In one tweet, the campaign called the shirts “a way better gift than a tie” for Father’s Day.
McConnell deems himself a leader in the fight against drug addiction. An entire section of his official congressional website is dedicated to the majority leader’s work on the “drug epidemic.” A recent press release thanked the White House “drug czar” for visiting Kentucky to “better understand the scope of Kentucky’s drug problem, and make an informed decision on what is necessary to continue the federal government’s commitment to combating drugs in the Commonwealth.”
“I make it a priority to invite Drug Czars to come here, so national policymakers can hear directly from those on the frontline of our fight against opioid and substance abuse,” McConnell claimed.
Kentucky is without a doubt on the front lines of the fight against drug addiction. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, it ranked third among states for the highest age-adjusted rates for death by drug overdose in 2017. Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy attributed at least 51 of those deaths to cocaine overdoses.
Additionally, since 2011, McConnell has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act which provided substance use disorder and prevention treatment for millions of Americans. According to a 2017 report in Health Affairs, the “coverage expansions and protections under the ACA can help lessen the epidemic and save lives,” and repealing it “could worsen the opioid epidemic.”
The campaign’s decision to emblazon the T-shirts with the words “Cartel Member” is also questionable. McConnell is a strong supporter of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the deportation arm of the Department of Homeland Security which pursues cartel members and those involved in drug trafficking.
In a July 2018 op-ed for The Courier-Journal, McConnell criticized those calling for more oversight of ICE, which has been accused of abusive policies, and those calling for the agency to be abolished, praising its efforts to halt drug deaths and murders by cartels.
“The law enforcement agency’s brave men and women defend this country and our citizens every single day against criminal aliens, drug cartels, gang members and sex traffickers,” he wrote. “The danger to our families and our vulnerable communities is very real.”
The McConnell campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the senator’s fundraising campaign.