How Mitch McConnell's War On The Tea Party Could Backfire

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has gone to war against the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) and other right wing groups looking to take down incumbent Republicans in primaries. Now, his fight is causing collateral damage.

The National Review’s Jonathan Strong reports today that McConnell met with Ben Sasse, a candidate for the open Senate seat in Nebraska, recently and immediately berated him for his work with SCF. Here’s Strong:

As soon as Sasse sat down, McConnell lit into him, criticising him for working with the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) as well as for posting a viral YouTube video in which he demanded “every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership.”

Republicans in Washington familiar with these kinds of sessions say the Kentucky Republican’s specialty is long, tension-filled pauses. But even for McConnell, this was awkward. Josh Holmes, McConnell’s top political hand, privately told friends afterward it was the most uncomfortable meeting he’d been in.

As he walked out of the room, Sasse turned to Holmes — “That didn’t go well!”

McConnell has not been shy about voicing his displeasure about SCF and any candidate or organisation that works with them. A few weeks ago, the National Republican Senatorial Committee blacklisted a major Republican advertising company, Jamestown Associates, for working with SCF. The minority leader has also specifically said he wants to punch SCF “in the nose.” McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore traded verbal barbs with the group last week after Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules.

These are just the latest installments of McConnell’s’ decision to confront the Tea Party head on. He’s sick of right wingers holding the House hostage and limiting his ability to work with Senate Democrats. After he stepped in to end the government shutdown and avoid a default, McConnell vowed not to let it happen again.

In his own re-election campaign in Kentucky, McConnell faces a primary opponent in Matt Bevin, who is not surprisingly supported by SCF. If he succeeds there, the minority leader would then face Democratic candidate Alison Lundergran Grimes in the general election.

More than any other campaign in the 2014 election, McConnell’s is a battle for control over the GOP. If he can defeat Bevin and Grimes while challenging SCF and other conservative groups, it will prove that the establishment still has power within the party. If not, it will give the Tea Party yet another boost.

However, McConnell’s war is not an isolated battle. By challenging the Tea Party in a public manner, he’s forcing other GOP candidates to pick sides. Like with Sasse, candidates cannot simultaneously receive support from conservative groups and have the minority leader’s blessing. As Strong writes, “being Switzerland isn’t really an option.”

This is a risky strategy for McConnell. He’s starting a GOP civil war, something Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has long tried to avoid. The rift in the party could have electoral consequences. An onslaught of negative ads both aimed at and produced by Republicans will hurt the party as a whole and nasty, divisive primaries could cause some Republicans to stay home in the general election.

Boehner repeatedly capitulated to the Tea Party during the government shutdown, because the greatest risk to the House GOP’s majority was a civil war. He had no choice, but to appease them. With Obamacare’s disastrous launch, the chances of Democrats retaking the House have fallen to zero. Now, Republicans have a huge opportunity to take back the Senate. But McConnell’s tactics could reduce those chances.

This was the war that Boehner has been trying to avoid for years. McConnell is now welcoming it. In the crossfire are candidates like Ben Sasse who are looking to keep the support of both the establishment and conservative groups. McConnell has now made it clear that that’s not an option. How these campaigns unfold will determine who really is in control of the Republican Party, but could cost the GOP its chance to win back the Senate as well.

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