Mitch McConnell Faces Trouble Inside the Beltway and Beyond

Michael Catalini
National Journal

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is finding himself in a difficult political position, both in Washington and at home in Kentucky.

On Capitol Hill, a group of conservative Republican senators, led by Mike Lee of Utah, has circulated a letter pledging they will not back legislation to fund the government that includes money for the Affordable Care Act. In Kentucky, McConnell’s primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, has embraced the pledge as a mark of his conservative bona fides.

That dynamic sets up an awkward environment for McConnell. On one hand, he knows the political costs of pursuing Lee’s approach. It would almost certainly lead to a government shutdown, an outcome that proved costly to Republicans in the ’90s. (Another group of GOP senators, including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Bob Corker of Tennessee, criticize the strategy as impractical.) On the other hand, McConnell now faces a challenger from the right in a state where President Obama and the Affordable Care Act are deeply unpopular.

“He’s certainly in a political vise, isn’t he?” asked Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky politics-watcher and a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky.

Indeed, the stakes are high for the minority leader. The GOP conference anticipates a favorable electoral map in 2014, and McConnell is looking at the very real possibility he could become majority leader.

His campaign balks at the notion that he is trying to derail efforts to undo the health care law but dodges answering whether he will sign on to the pledge.

“There isn’t a single member of Congress who has fought Obamacare harder or longer than Mitch McConnell, and he has repeatedly said if has the opportunity to defund or repeal the law he will not hesitate,” campaign manager Jesse Benton said.

The conservative lawmakers who support the pledge have been tight-lipped about whether they’ll get McConnell’s support. Lee said he has talked to McConnell but would not share details of the conversation.

“He hasn’t signed yet, but we expect most, if not all, Senate Republicans to stand with the majority of the country and oppose funding Obamacare by the end of the fiscal year,” said Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee.

McConnell himself declined to say whether he had made a decision about what approach to support, telling reporters Tuesday that Republicans have had “a lot of internal discussions” on the issue.

Although McConnell has done much to oppose the Affordable Care Act, and has aligned himself with Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, and espoused tea-party rhetoric, his reputation is that of a conservative willing to compromise, Cross said.

“I think McConnell has gamed this out like other Republicans and sees that trying to defund Obamacare through the [continuing resolution] would simply lead to a government shutdown—and they think they’ve seen that movie before.”

That’s further than the Republicans who oppose Lee’s efforts have taken their rhetoric. Still, Corker and Coburn have not been shy, criticizing their colleagues openly and aggressively.

“I think it’s a silly effort,” Corker told MSNBC. “What people are really saying who are behind that effort is, we don’t have the courage to roll up our sleeves and deal with real deficit and spending decisions.”

Twelve Republican senators, including Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Marco Rubio of Florida, signed Lee’s letter, which was sent to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., last week. Conservative groups have been quick to bolster their argument. While Heritage Action doesn’t back candidates in primaries, spokesman Dan Holler said Lee’s pledge has the “potential to become a litmus test” for conservatives.

“I think what you’ll see is that conservatives outside of Washington very much want to stop Obamacare, and they’re going to look at folks who aren’t fighting Obamacare and say, why aren’t you fighting this?” Holler said.

Bevin, McConnell’s GOP challenger, is banking on that. He’s already received the support of the Madison Project, a conservative PAC. The Louisville businessman, a transplant from New England, has a long road ahead of him, though. A recent GOP poll conducted by Wenzel Strategies found McConnell leading Bevin 59 percent to 20 percent. The senator also has a formidable war chest, with nearly $10 million cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The real worry for McConnell, Cross said, is whether Bevin could generate enough influence with conservative voters to suppress turnout in the general election against Democratic candidate Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

This weekend, Kentuckians will gather in Fancy Farm for a yearly picnic that has become an important political event in the Bluegrass State. McConnell, Bevin, and Grimes will all be there. It’s at the Friday night dinner and Saturday morning breakfast where votes are won or lost, Cross says. One thing to watch for: whether McConnell engages Bevin.

“I don’t know if McConnell is going to grant him that,” Cross said.