McConnell Fires A Shot Across The Bow Of The Tea Party
When it comes to the unfolding conflict inside the GOP, Mitch McConnell seems to have fired an opening shot.
With the 2013 elections behind us, attention has already begun to turn to the 2014 midterms, and, before them, to various primary fights against so-called “establishment” candidates being waged by candidates with the backing of Tea Party supporters and Senate Conservatives Fund, the PAC formerly headed by Jim DeMint that was at the center of the ill-fated “Defund Obamacare” campaign this summer that resulted in a sixteen day shutdown of the Federal Government from which the GOP garnered, in the end, absolutely nothing. Perhaps the most prominent of those primary fights is likely to be in Kentucky where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is seeking his sixth term in office, is facing a challenge from Tea Party and SCF backed Matt Bevin. So far, there’s little evidence in the polls that Bevin is posing a serious challenge to McConnell, and McConnell heads into the race with of the biggest campaign war chests of any Senate candidate in the country. Nonetheless, McConnnell isn’t leaving anything to chance. He’s already had ads up against Bevin in Kentucky and gave us a preview of what Bevin and other Tea Party candidates are likely to face next year in an interview with Peggy Noonan that appeared in The Wall Street Journal:
It is a month since the government shutdown and a day after the election. The minority leader of the U.S. Senate,Mitch McConnell, longest-serving senator in Kentucky history (1985 to the present, up for a sixth term in 2014), is seated in his office talking about the stresses, strains and estrangements that mark the relationship between what is called the tea party and what is called the GOP establishment, which at the moment seems to consist of everyone who isn’t in the tea party. Mr. McConnell is soft-spoken, contained, a person of habitual discretion. What seemed to be on his mind was something like “Star Wars: The Establishment Fights Back.” What he expressed was more like “The Establishment Voices Some Aggravation.”
But it’s a start.
“The most important election yesterday wasn’t the governor of New Jersey and it wasn’t the governor of Virginia, it was the special election for Congress in South Alabama, where a candidate who said the shutdown was a great idea, the president was born in Kenya, and that he opposed Speaker Boehner came in second.” The victory of a more electable Republican, is significant, Mr. McConnell says. To govern, parties must win. To win, parties must “run candidates that don’t scare the general public, [and] convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us—we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”
The tea party, he says, consists of “people who are angry and upset at government—and I agree with them.” But “I think, honestly, many of them have been misled. . . . They’ve been told the reason we can’t get to better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true, and I think that the folks that I have difficulty with are the leaders of some of these groups who basically mislead them for profit. . . . They raise money . . . take their cut and spend it” on political action that hurts Republicans.
Regarding the Senate Conservatives Fund, McConnell had these words:
He refers to the Senate Conservatives Fund. “That’s the one I’m prepared to be specific about.” The fund “has elected more Democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the last three cycles.” The group is targeting Mr. McConnell with ads slamming his leadership during the shutdown. “Right now they’re on the air in obvious coordination with Harry Reid’s super PAC—Harry Reid’s!—in the same markets, at roughly the same amount, at the same time.”
McDonnell does have a point here. Judging by how they’ve spent their money recently, it seems as though the SCF is more interested in targeting Republicans deemed not to be pure than they are in doing the hard work of taking on incumbent Democrats in states that are potentially winnable like Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. The best evidence of that can been seen in this analysis of recent SCF spending by Tom Dougherty that shows a clear pattern of targeting Republicans who seem to be drifting from whatever it is they consider to be ideological purity. In fact, their tactics seem to to have gotten to the point where even Tea Party stalwarts like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul have made clear to their fellow Senators that they are not going to allow themselves to be associated with SCF efforts to unseat sitting Republicans next year. Whether that leads to a consequent reduction in the ability of the SCF to have any significant influence on politics is something that only time will tell, but it seems clear that they overplayed their hand in the past several months, and McConnell is sending them a message.
McConnell goes on to reiterate yet again that he was publicly opposed to the shutdown strategy from the beginning and that he has no doubt that he’s going to be the Republican nominee for Senate from Kentucky. As I noted above, there seems to be little doubt that he’s going to end up being proven correct on that last point in the end. The campaign in is still in its early stages, but Bevin has proven to be something of an inept campaigner and, whatever one might say about Mitch McConnell, he’s definitely an adept politician who knows what it takes to win statewide in Kentucky even under less than hospitable circumstances. So, barring what would be an atypical error on the part of the Senate Minority Leader, I wouldn’t be placing any large monetary bets on the odds of Matt Bevin winning the Kentucky Republican Senate Primary.
The broader point of McConnell’s words, though, strike me as being what they say about what the narrative that seems to be developing inside the GOP in the wake of both the shutdown and the elections in New Jersey, Alabama, and Virginia. Specifically, I’m referring to a clear decision by more mainline conservatives that sitting back and letting the Tea Party take control of the primary process as it did in 2010 and 2012 was not in the interests of the GOP, and that, this time, they were going to play the same just as hard, if not harder.
Jazz Shaw puts it this way:
This is about as close to an open declaration of war that McConnell has come. It would seem that the time for “let’s all go along to get along” is over, and the GOP is ready to air all the dirty laundry in public. But here’s one interesting thing for you to consider this morning. You’ll notice that Mitch
But is Mitch somehow “giving permission” for everyone else in the country – from Graham to Enzi – to start putting up wanted posters of Tea Party upstarts with targets on their faces? If so, Reagan’s 11th commandment is well and truly out the window for both sides, and the primary is going to be a far more bloody affair than I’d been predicting as recently as this summer.
In the end, I don’t think that Graham, Enzi, or Lamar Alexander, who is also facing the potential of a Tea Party challenge of his own next year, think that they need Mitch McConnell’s permission to unload on their Tea Party challengers. The die has already been cast in that regard, and the fight for the future direction of the Republican Party has begun.