Provocative comments over the weekend from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will provide grist for the 'grassroots vs. establishment' mill for some time. In an interview with the New York Times about the 2014 election cycle, McConnell predicted that Tea Party-backed Senate candidates will get wiped out in GOP primaries this year:
This election season, Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are taking a much harder line as they sense the majority within reach. Top congressional Republicans and their allies are challenging the advocacy groups head on in an aggressive effort to undermine their credibility. The goal is to deny them any Senate primary victories, cut into their fund-raising and diminish them as a future force in Republican politics. “I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” Mr. McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said in an interview, referring to the network of activist organizations working against him and two Republican incumbents in Kansas and Mississippi while engaging in a handful of other contests. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
McConnell may be proven correct -- more on that in a moment -- but this was still an unwise thing to say. Saying such an inflammatory thing about fellow conservatives, especially in the Times of all places, only serves to fan the flames of intra-party distrust and resentment. The timing and intensity of McConnell's smack down is redolent of House Speaker John Boehner's rant against certain conservative organizations during the Ryan/Murray budget debate. Though there was merit to his argument, unleashing a ferocious internecine attack while trying to whip votes for a compromise bill seemed ill-advised. (Boehner's defenders may point out that he delivered his stern message and won the vote handily). In McConnell's case, I suspect that his remarks were prompted by some combination of (a) electoral chest-thumping typical of in-cycle politicians posturing for donors and supporters, and (b) personal frustration. In spite of his strong conservative record over many years of public service, McConnell has been relentlessly attacked as a spineless, Democrat-enabling squish by primary opponent Matt Bevin. Candidates in the Bevin mold are being backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group reviled by many Republican incumbents. When McConnell lashes out at Tea Party candidates, he's almost certainly directing his ire at SCF.
Whether McConnell's bravado is borne out by voters remains to be seen. In Texas, a righty challenger to conservative Sen. John Cornyn got blown out in the primary just last week. A new poll shows McConnell leading Kentucky's GOP primary by almost 40 points. Targeted Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts holds a sizable lead over his challenger in Kansas, in spite of the revelation that Roberts no longer owns a home in the state he represents. Mississippi may present the SCF's best chance to pick off an incumbent, as a Human Events poll showed Sen. Thad Cochran tied with challenger Chris McDaniel in December. Attacks are flying in that race: The 76-year-old Cochran admitted to being largely ignorant about the Tea Party, while McDaniel has been accused of attending (and possibly addressing) an extremist event. Elsewhere, contested incumbent-free GOP primaries remain up for grabs in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Alaska. Strong, mainstream conservatives have risen to the head of the primary pack in other races, including in Arkansas (Rep. Tom Cotton) and Colorado (Rep. Cory Gardner).
It's entirely possible that McConnell may be looking at internal polling indicating that "establishment"-backed Republicans are poised to sweep the board over the coming months, but I'm not sure what is gained by inciting a large element of the base. 'McConnell the anti-conservative RINO' is a grotesque caricature. Why give it any oxygen? Yes, the "true conservative" crowd throws a lot of punches, then squeals when anyone shoves back; but as the party's Senate leader, McConnell should be more circumspect about how he discusses internal party tensions. Plus, what the polls say today could very well fluctuate. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were considered extreme long shots by the smart set; those one-time scrappy underdogs are both called "Senator" today. The truth is that Tea Party candidates have cost Republicans dearly over the last few years in places like Delaware, Missouri, and Nevada. But they've also strengthened the GOP in Florida, Texas and Wisconsin -- and we're rarely reminded of establishment nominees who've run terrible campaigns and lost general elections. Facing a real opportunity to oust Democrats from the Senate majority in 2014, the entire center-right coalition must embrace a unity of purpose heading into the fall. The (not unusual) climate of primary acrimony will end, and competitors on both ends of the GOP divide will reconcile out of strategic necessity. But personal attacks and gratuitous goading from either side will make that process more difficult. Mitch McConnell, of all people, should know that. I'll leave you with this. "Flatline:"