McConnell is Ready for a Tea Party Battle

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.

Sam Youngman has the details of this burgeoning battle:

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.

“Go Out There and Win an Election”

Those were the words President Obama directed towards the Republican Party today as he further emphasized that this was the end of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. If the Republican Party doesn’t like the president or his policies, it should take its message to the American people and win elections. It’s a simple argument and it also applies to moderate Republicans. If they want to take back their party, win elections. Defeat Tea Party candidates in primaries.

Liberals are hopeful that this complete and utter defeat of the Republican Party in the debt-ceiling battle will lead to a change of GOP strategy. The theory goes that the Tea Party will see that its extreme tactics don’t work and will look for more practical methods to fight the president. This is highly unlikely to happen.

Boehner did an excellent job keeping his members unified, but grassroots organizations around the country have had about enough. Molly Ball has a great story today about how many conservative activists are ready to leave the GOP and want to primary every Republican who voted for the bill. Their belief is that Republican tactics didn’t fail, their leadership did. For the moment, there’s a gap between the opinions of these activists and the Tea Party members in Congress. These congressmen had nothing, but positive things to say about the speaker yesterday while Eric Erickson, Rush Limbaugh and other notable conservatives weren’t so kind. That gap will disappear soon enough as those congressmen look to stay on the good side of Erickson and Co.

Many reform conservatives were appalled with the Tea Party’s tactics. Ross Douthat hopes this was a learning exercise for the party so that it won’t “pull this kind of stunt again.” David Frum is ready for the Tea Party to exit altogether. He’s not alone in that opinion.

But Boehner and Republican leaders know that as much as they want to do that, they can’t. Whether they like it or not, the Republican Party needs the Tea Party as much as they need the moderates. They are listening to the Tea Party and not the moderates, because the Tea Party has no problem declaring war on the establishment and jumping ship. That may be electoral suicide, but the right wing doesn’t fear those consequences. The moderates do. It’s the same reason the hard-liners didn’t fear the political consequences of a futile government shutdown or the economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. It’s a game of chicken between the moderates and radicals. Whoever is willing to ditch the party and cause electoral defeat for both has control. Right now, that’s the Tea Party.

That’s why Boehner can’t simply cast aside his conservative members. It’s why he must do everything in his power to keep them happy and listen to them.

The way moderates take back the party is not through a civil war, but by defeating them in elections. As these extreme tactics fail, the moderate Republicans will earn more support from the marginal Tea Party voter. Slowly, they will win back their trust. This won’t be an overnight change. It will take at least the 2014 election cycle, probably longer and there’s nothing either party can do to speed it along. It’s deeply frustrating for Democrats to look across the aisle and see a party held captive by a small fraction of extreme members. For Republicans, it’s even more frustrating to be the ones held captive by those members. But casting aside those members in a nasty civil war will be political suicide for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The best thing moderate Republicans can do is win elections.