Why is U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell sitting in the back of the room, twiddling his thumbs, as the Senate pushes for bipartisan compromise on difficult issues? When the heat was on last week for an agreement between the GOP and Democrats to avoid the end of the filibuster, McConnell was nowhere to be seen–and it was thanks to the Tea Party
McConnell faces a race for re-election next year and, until recently, thought he could focus his efforts on the likely Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. On Tuesday, however, Tea Party member Matt Bevins–an investment adviser who has never held public office–sent out a media advisory stating his intention to challenge the incumbent senator in the 2014 primary. Bevins will be making appearances around Kentucky for the rest of the week to create visibility for his campaign.
In what must be an ominous sign for McConnell, 15 local tea party groups appealed to national tea party groups to withdraw endorsements of the senator that they’ve already made. In a letter, the groups wrote:
Senator McConnell’s Progressive Liberal voting record, his absolute iron fisted rule over the Republican Party in Kentucky and his willingness to roll over and cede power to President Obama and the Liberals in Washington, prove that he is no friend to the American people or the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.Your endorsement undermines the work of the real grassroots Tea Party organizations all over Kentucky. Had you taken the time to reach out to us, you would have learned that the Tea Parties in Kentucky do NOT support Senator McConnell’s campaign.
Uh-oh, McConnell. There’s more. Senator Rand Paul, who has also pledged his support to the minority leader, refused to discourage Bevins from making the challenge by saying:
I’m not giving (Bevin) encouragement or discouragement. It’s a free country and anybody who wants to run, can.
Still, there’s a silver lining to Bevin’s challenge–maybe not for McConnell, but certainly for the Democratic opposition. The fact that the Senate’s minority leader has been endorsed by two national TeaParty groups, TeaParty.net and Tea Party Nation, but not by the local groups, indicates a split in their movement. In May, Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation made the case that the movement needs to“grow up” and “pick our fights”, writing on the group’s website:
For those who scream that McConnell isn’t ‘Tea Party’ enough, would you prefer Harry Reid?
So expect McConnell to continue twiddling his thumbs as others–like John McCain, who is not up for reelection–step in to fill the GOP leadership gap on issues requiring bipartisan cooperation, like immigration reform and the budget ceiling. By avoiding any further erosion of his position as a conservative, McConnell seeks to inoculate himself from further Tea Party accusations–and opens himself up to vulnerability from the probable Democratic candidate.
Alison Lundergan Grimes announced her candidacy on July 1st, hoping to take advantage of both McConnell’s deep unpopularity and her own status as underdog. In 2011, she won the office of Secretary of State by first defeating the Democratic incumbent and then the Republican who had Tea Party backing. She won the most votes of any Democratic candidate statewide.
After her announcement for the Senate race, Guy Cecil, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pointed out a poll showing that over 60 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove of McConnell’s job performance. Cecil had this to say about Lundergran Grimes’ prospects:
The Kentucky Senate race is now a toss up. Mitch McConnell is the most unpopular incumbent in the entire country. He is a relic of the past and a symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington. Kentuckians want a change.
McConnell is starting the race with a huge war chest of over $8.6 million. However, Lundergan Grimes comes from a political family with extensive connections and the possibility of raising large amounts of cash herself. She lost no time in framing the race from the perspective of a younger, fresher face, saying:
The question never was, is Mitch McConnell vulnerable? The question never was, does Kentucky deserve a change? The answer to both of those questions remains and is, yes.I agree with thousands of Kentuckians that Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction. That Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth.
So, here’s McConnell’s dilemma: stop the obstructionism and face the wrath of the Tea Party, or continue with that course and face the wrath of voters who want to see progress on the issues that most affect their daily lives.
Whatever the outcome, the nation is already reaping the benefits of the race: no more Mitch McConnell in their faces until at least after the primary season is over.