Behind every tea party defeat in the Senate lurks Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — at least according to a small but vocal band of conservative activists.
Led by RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, some in the Republican Party’s conservative wing have blamed McConnell for just about everything they view as wrong with Washington, D.C. From the GOP’s failure to block President Barack Obama’s health care law to Sen. Ron Johnson’s (Wis.) defeat in the race for Conference vice chairman at the hands of Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), these activists and commentators see McConnell’s quiet hand.
“There are Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. Mitch McConnell is an appropriator before he’s a Republican,” said Erickson, who is also a CNN contributor. “He’s not willing to engage in the fight; he’s a consummate Washington guy.”
Erickson, speaking today during a brief telephone interview, said McConnell has sided with Republican Conference moderates at the expense of caucus conservatives and the tea-party-inspired reforms they have been pushing. Erickson acknowledged that any Republican governing majority in the Senate will necessarily include moderates from states that lean Democratic. But he accused McConnell of using that fact as “cover” to avoid implementing a conservative agenda.
Some McConnell supporters say the complaints from Erickson, and those who agree with him, are usually personal and unsubstantiated. They point to language Erickson has used to voice his opposition to McConnell’s leadership as proof that the conservative activist and commentator has a personal vendetta against Kentucky’s senior Senator. They contend that such thinking constitutes a minority viewpoint within the tea party activist community that enjoys an outsized megaphone.
One example supporters provided comes from a January 2009 Erickson post on RedState.com, in which he criticized the Minority Leader for pushing bipartisanship in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats’ 2008 election wins: “I’ve said [McConnell] lost his testicles and is now spreading a cancer of capitulation throughout the Senate Republican Conference. We need to send Mitch some balls. Seriously. We’re teaming up with the Don’t Go Movement to do just that.”
More recently, Erickson’s blog blamed McConnell staff for being behind a Roll Call story about a staff shake-up in Johnson’s office.
Said a Bluegrass State Republican operative: “Every single week he has some slam on Mitch McConnell. It doesn’t echo anywhere — certainly not in Kentucky.”
But the conservative base is not monolithic, and many of the community’s prominent activists hold a different view from Erickson. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, gave McConnell high marks for his voting record and leadership of Senate Republicans.
Norquist said he understands why some of the GOP base might be disappointed from afar. However, he said it’s impossible to understand McConnell’s juggling act without gaining access to private meetings where moderate and conservative Members disclose positions on legislation and tactics. Norquist credited McConnell with the GOP’s seven-seat gain in the 2010 elections and said the Kentuckian should be lauded for holding Republicans together, particularly during the 111th Congress.
“He’s held the caucus together when they needed every single Member to filibuster stuff,” Norquist told Roll Call. The anti-tax activist added that, if McConnell was in the habit of pushing some of his centrist Members “too hard” to the right, they might have joined Democrats in supporting key aspects of Obama’s agenda, including the health care bill. Norquist indicated that such an outcome would have been devastating for conservatives.
Norquist’s analysis was essentially supported by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a conservative stalwart who at times has clashed with GOP leadership and opposed the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s preferred candidates in some primary contests. DeMint said the key to moving Senate Republicans in a more conservative direction is to elect more Members with tea party roots.
DeMint said he is confident McConnell will lead the GOP Conference to the right if and when his Members demand he do so, which is why the South Carolinian is working again this cycle to elect Republican primary candidates who share his outlook on the issues. DeMint described Senate Republicans as politically “risk-averse” as they approach an election that offers them a chance to reclaim the majority, and he said of those who believe the Conference has fallen short: “It’s a mistake to try to blame leadership.”
“You can’t move this Conference. It doesn’t matter who [we] have as leader if they don’t want to go. One thing about Senators that I’ve found is they’re not going to go where they don’t want to go,” DeMint said. “I think if we get three or four more solid conservatives in the Senate, it would allow Mitch to lead as I think the conservative that he is.”
A Republican insider with relationships in the Senate discussed the natural tension between leading a diverse Conference, where poor tactical choices could negatively affect GOP prospects for winning the majority, versus the natural desire a philosophical conservative might have to pursue conservative policy reforms.
This source said McConnell’s goal, “for better or worse,” is to try and position Republicans to win the majority, either putting his party in a position to enact conservative reforms — if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is elected president — or ensuring that Obama will be powerless to move significant legislation should he win a second term.
“This is hard for me personally because I am a conservative, not a Republican,” the insider said. “My conservative view normally is, a loss is better than a marginal win. Unfortunately, an Obama victory redefines ‘loss’ as something that will change America for the worse for decades to come. It is time for conservatives like me to grow up and hope for an aggressive Romney who is willing to do what is right.”