For a little while, it seemed as if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would swing to the right to match up with his right wing challenger, Matt Bevin. The past couple of weeks have shown otherwise. McConnell stepped forward and orchestrated the debt ceiling deal and has criticized the Tea Party’s tactics repeatedly.
McConnell caused widespread whiplash last week when he unleashed a blistering attack on Bevin, his Republican primary challenger, just days after the Kentucky senator had signaled he was looking past Bevin to likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Instead, several allies of McConnell and other Senate Republicans say the senator is now planning a two-front war: one against Grimes and the other against the fundraising groups that are supporting Bevin. McConnell’s real targets are the Senate Conservatives Fund, which announced its endorsement of Bevin on Oct. 18, Heritage Action for America, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and other outside groups.
If McConnell can crush Bevin, the thinking goes, he can expose a lack of ideological consistency in the outside groups, allowing him to separate Tea Party voters from Tea Party fundraising groups.
This is shaping up to be the key race in next year’s elections. Can McConnell antagonize the Tea Party and outside groups and defeat Bevin by running a more centrist campaign? If he does so, will those Tea Partiers support him against Grimes and provide the votes to defeat her? Neither question has a clear answer. McConnell has a very difficult year ahead of him.
I’ve argued that the Republican establishment’s best way to retake the party from the radicals in it is to quietly win elections. McConnell isn’t taking that advice. He wants to make a statement here that will reverberate far beyond Kentucky. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If the minority leader can hold his seat, it will signal to other moderate Republicans that they can take a harder line against the Tea Party and still win elections.
McConnell is also the perfect candidate to take this risk. He’s a part of the Republican leadership, which means Tea Party disdain for him is already pretty high. He can only alienate so many more Tea Partiers by attacking them, compared to a more junior member who could incite strong opposition by doing so. In addition, Kentucky is a solid red state, meaning that he could lose some of the right-wingers and still defeat Grimes in the general election.
But the risks here are also extremely high. Bevin and Grimes are both strong candidates and will not go away easily. Outside money is going to pour into Kentucky as the primary kicks into full gear. McConnell’s attorney already accused Bevin of committing a misdemeanor last week. This is going to be a heated primary and it could easily hurt his showing in the general. How nasty will this get? Hollywood stars are already lining up to donate to Grimes, with many in the Democratic party thinking that she could have a real shot to unseat the minority leader. McConnell’s determination to send a message to his party and use Bevin’s radicalness against him only plays into their hands.
This is a vital test of the Republican establishment’s ability to tame the Tea Party by attacking them head on. If McConnell can defeat Bevin and Grimes, it will be a rallying cry for moderates to take back control of their party. But if he falters, the opposite will be true. It will be a crystal clear indication that the Tea Party is still in power and will force moderates to continue bending to their every whim. It’s not an understatement to suggest that McConnell’s campaign is a battle for control of the Republican party.