The Tea Party is beating Mitch McConnell

It's lined up a potential primary challenger, and already succeeded at pushing McConnell to the far-right fringe

Topics: The Tea Party, Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senate, Kentucky, The Right,

The Tea Party is beating Mitch McConnell (Credit: Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

If Mitch McConnell isn’t conservative enough for you, Matt Bevin may be your guy. The Kentucky businessman is reportedly considering mounting a primary challenge against the Senate minority leader from the right, and has been reaching out to local Tea Party groups to secure support, according to the Hill’s Alexandra Jaffe:

Sarah Duran, president of the Louisville Tea Party, told The Hill that Bevin had been in touch with her over the phone to discuss his run multiple times over the past few weeks, and that he met with the group two weeks ago to discuss his interest in the race. [...]

She added that other Tea Party groups had reached out to Bevin to encourage him to run, and that even “some people that have supported McConnell in the past” had been in touch with him about a potential bid.

Does Bevin have any chance of beating McConnell? Well, he’s wealthy and could presumably fund his own campaign, which would be crucial in taking on McConnell, who is sitting on a prodigious $7 million war chest. And McConnell is fairly weak — the least popular senator in the country, according to a recent PPP poll.

But Bevin’s campaign is a long shot, at best. McConnell is a savvy operator who will have the state’s entire GOP establishment behind him, endless supplies of money, and universal name ID, while Bevin is almost entirely unknown. And McConnell is hardly a RINO despised by the far right like Rich Lugar or other GOP senators who have fallen to Tea Party challenges.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a more moderate, less powerful senator in a more conservative state, held on to his seat last year in the face of a Tea Party challenge. A primary challenge against House Speaker John Boehner fizzled harmlessly as well. Over 90 percent of senators who seek reelection win, after all.

Still, that doesn’t mean that a Tea Party challenge is unimportant. For the movement, a primary challenge can be successful even if it fails, as long as it succeeds in pushing the target further to the right and making him more responsive to the far right’s demands.



And by that measure, Bevin may have already won.

Rumors that the Tea Party might target McConnell started even before Election Day last year, and the Republican leader stepped up his outreach accordingly. In August, he held a large rally with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is positioning himself as a national leader of the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the GOP, even though McConnell campaigned against Paul and the two have clashed in the Senate.

McConnell even hired Paul’s former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to lead his own 2014 reelection bid. Benton also ran Ron Paul’s presidential campaign and has deep ties in the conservative activist community. “The year-long search that ended with Benton’s hiring was a major signal to Republicans that McConnell views support from the younger libertarian and tea party movements as crucial not only to his political future, but also to his party’s prospects nationally,” Politico noted at the time.

The bar is especially high for a leader like McConnell, who would like to not only win, but win by a large margin to discourage future challengers and show strength within his caucus back in Washington. Which is why he seems to be taking the threat seriously.

As he leads his party’s negotiations on sequestration, gun control, immigration and everything else in the next two years, he will know that it’s not just his colleagues’ reelections at stake, but his own as well. And that makes him less likely to cooperate with the White House and more interested in adhering to the hard-line positions set by the growing number of conservatives in his own caucus, whose support he will need next year. In other words, the Tea Party wins, regardless of the primary outcome.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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