They called him a vanilla villain with the charisma of an oyster; the owlish face of obstructionism; the sinister Godfather of Kentucky who was certain to get whacked on Election Day. But now his critics in the Democratic Party and the media, who threw the kitchen sink and the garbage grinder at him last fall, have to call Sen. Mitch McConnell something else:

Senate Majority Leader. One of the three most powerful people in America.

“There was no question they were peddling the story that I was terrifically unpopular,” says Sen. Mitch McConnell. “It’s not uncommon for the two largest newspapers in the state to try to take me out, but I’m getting used to it.”

He’s seen it before—overcooked polls, snarky news stories and scathing editorials from the press. This time, the Democrats sent everything they had and called up the reserves—Hollywood stars, pundits and both Clintons.

But the voters had the last word. They re-elected him in a landslide—his sixth win as the longest serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history.

“I even carried the women’s vote by three points,” he says. “I was the only Republican to do that—including Joni Ernst, who is a woman.”

McConnell’s victory was big for Republicans, but also for Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It means the region has the Senate majority leader on one end of the Brent Spence Bridge—and House Speaker John Boehner at the other end in Ohio.

It’s the first time two friends in the same party have cornered so much power in one place since Texas had Lyndon Johnson bossing the Senate and Sam Rayburn running the House from 1955 to 1961.

The legacy of that Texas two-step is everywhere in the Lone Star State—Sam Rayburn Lake, Sam Rayburn Dam, at least four highways and six schools named after the former speaker—not to mention parks, highways, museums, schools and a presidential library for LBJ in Austin.

“Certainly Texas benefitted,” McConnell says. “But that was a different era.” Earmarks for pork have been banned. “Even in the days of earmarks, none would equal the shortfall on the Brent Spence Bridge.”

The 1963 bridge is dangerously feeble and obsolete. Replacing it along with its highway ramps will cost at least $2.5 billion. But its value to the region and nation as a link in the Interstate 75 artery is estimated at more than $400 billion annually. It seems like an obvious priority. But so far, the project has been gridlocked.

But now McConnell and Boehner can literally bridge the border. “I’m going to be in a pretty good place, as is the speaker, to address every issue,” McConnell says. “We have a very tight relationship and have been friends for years.”

“There are no dictators here in Washington, but we’re acutely aware of the problems in the region and we’re in a position to help.”

McConnell says, “I’m aware of the resounding opposition to tolling in Northern Kentucky.” His answer: Make Brent Spence Bridge one of a few nationally significant projects financed by “repatriation” of U.S. corporate assets that are now parked abroad to avoid punishing tax rates.

“Lots of corporations have kept profits overseas and won’t bring them back. If we dramatically reduce tax rates, we will see an explosion of revenue,” he explains.

Fitting a Brent Spence cogwheel into the watch-works of tax reform is how Washington ticks. And nobody knows how to wind it up better than McConnell.

Addison Mitchell McConnell was born in Alabama in 1942. As a boy, he overcame polio and he has been running ever since. He ran for president of the student body at the University of Louisville. After getting his law degree from the University of Kentucky, he served as an aide to Sen. Sherman Cooper, and as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Gerald Ford.

He ran for judge executive (county commissioner) in Jefferson County in 1978 and won. Then in 1984 he ran against Democrat incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston—and won in an upset.

McConnell is the kind of man who keeps a cool head when everyone else is checking in to the nervous hospital. He’s even-tempered and frustratingly unflappable with needling reporters. When others are ready jump off a cliff, he admires the view and sees opportunities on the horizon.

To most Republicans, the state of the country is Triple Code Red Defcon Level 5. But McConnell is reassuringly calm: “It has been like this before. There were plenty of times when we had a lot of challenges.”

He is also deeply respectful of the history and traditions of the Senate and its constitutional role, which he described in a speech on the Senate floor last year: “The only institution that can make stable and enduring laws is the only one we have, in which all 50 states are represented equally, and where every single Senator therefore has a say in the laws we pass here. This is what the Senate was designed for.”

But in the past six years that changed. McConnell sees these problems as being due to the Democrats’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “He shut the place down. I’m going to open it up,” McConnell vowed as he prepared to take over.

He knows that pork is not the only thing that has changed since LBJ and Rayburn. Strong-arm leaders can no longer bully the Senate with the “Johnson treatment.”

“We’re all familiar with Lyndon Johnson’s reign here in the middle of the last century. And some look at LBJ’s well-known heavy handedness as a kind of mastery,” he said in a speech. “But by the time he left ..., LBJ’s colleagues had had enough. They may have bent to his will while he was here, but the moment they had a chance to be delivered from his iron-fisted rule, they took it.”

McConnell was signaling a new day of faith in the system and in the value of free and open debate: “Vigorous debate about our differences isn’t some sickness to be lamented; it’s a sign of strength.”

That’s doesn’t fit the media cartoon of McConnell. He’s not some country-club Republican living in a pillared estate. He and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, live in a modest townhouse in a Louisville neighborhood where campaign signs for McConnell—or any Republican—are as rare as UK banners. When he’s home on the weekends, he likes to go Krogering. He’s such a well-known regular at the neighborhood Kroger deli, his friend behind the counter, Woody Moore, was in one of his campaign ads.

And McConnell is an avid sports fan, tailgating at UofL football games and seldom missing Cardinal and UK basketball games, on TV or in person.

And by any calculation, McConnell has a great opportunity. Among the three men who lead our nation, two don’t want to be president and the third can’t run again. That sets the table for cooperation on jobs, the economy, tax reform, immigration and local issues such as the Brent Spence Bridge and the heroin epidemic, both high on McConnell’s action list.

The press and his enemies have called him every name in the book and a few that can’t be put in writing. If he’s able to open up the Senate and get things done, he will be called something new: The right man in the right place at the right time.