If it wasn’t already clear the 2014 cycle had begun for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, last week made it crystal.
The Kentucky Republican — who does not yet have opponents in the primary or the general election — is playing some serious defense to guard against a siege from his right. And in a week that was supposed to be dominated by news of gun control and immigration bills, McConnell made splashes of his own on mostly unrelated political topics.
At the beginning of the week, his campaign turned over evidence to the FBI and capitalized on claims that Democratic opponents “bugged” his campaign operation. He then joined the conservative members of his conference in vowing to filibuster amendments on the pending gun background check legislation. And on Wednesday, he delivered a previously unreported speech to the National Urban League, parallel to the one his conference colleague and libertarian firebrand Rand Paul delivered at Howard University.
The very public moves are the political sprouts shooting from the seeds McConnell began sowing as early as 2010 when he began cultivating an uneasy alliance with Paul.
McConnell has shown a special deference to his freshman partner. He has held multiple votes on Paul’s amendments, even though many of them barely attract supporters in the double digits, sometimes at the expense of veteran lawmakers’ proposals. He has repeatedly been among only a handful of Republicans to vote for Paul’s budget alternative. He hired Paul’s 2010 campaign manager. And aides take frequent opportunities to link the two men.
McConnell’s address to the National Urban League, for example, sounded a lot like Paul’s at Howard. According to a source familiar with McConnell’s speech, the leader told the room of black business leaders: “I want to see a day when more African-Americans look at the issues and realize that they identify with the Republican Party.” That message echoed Paul’s at the historically black university.
McConnell also dedicated time to talking about Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., telling the crowd in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building that Scott is an African-American who has realized the strength of GOP politics. It doesn’t hurt McConnell’s case with the right that Scott also happens to be a tea party conservative.
Next week, of course, will be another opportunity for McConnell to stand side by side with conservatives including Paul, Texas’ Ted Cruz or Utah’s Mike Lee, if they pursue a floor strategy that seeks to block nearly every amendment to the gun package.
McConnell already was one of 32 senators who opposed debating the larger gun bill. Only two Democrats voted against moving on to the bill.
“I think that things that have been demonstrated this week are that one, it validates the claim that [McConnell] and Republicans have been making for a long time that he has a huge target on his back because he’s the leader. Two, that the No. 1 priority of the left is to defeat Mitch McConnell. And three, that Mitch McConnell is prepared to crush them,” said one veteran of Republican Senate campaigns.
This trench warfare mindset was particularly evident in the aggressive public relations campaign surrounding the secretly recorded strategy session at McConnell’s campaign headquarters in Kentucky.
Through deft maneuvering, McConnell’s campaign, national Republicans and McConnell himself helped turn the narrative from harsh campaign tactics to outrage over being surreptitiously taped. And Democrats are helping justify Team McConnell’s image of victimhood. On April 12, for example, the group Americans United for Change released an anti-McConnell ad tying his opposition to background checks to al-Qaida.
“What should give Sen. McConnell and fellow Republicans who oppose broader background checks great pause is that their position is so unpopular that virtually the only people who agree with them are big gun manufacturers, criminals, and terrorists,” Americans United for Change Executive Director Tom McMahon said in a statement. “Senator McConnell doesn’t even want to have a debate about gun safety in Newtown’s aftermath. Talk about a slap to the face to all families whose loved ones were taken away by gun violence.”
And it’s just April. Of 2013.
It’s unclear what effect McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders’ political maneuvers might have on the policy decisions of the conference. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, is also running for re-election and has also been trying to shore up his bona fides on the right. Like McConnell, Cornyn’s Senate battery mate — Cruz — is a conservative, young politician who tacks to the right on almost every issue. Cornyn was one of only three senators to vote against the nomination of then-colleague John Kerry to secretary of State because Cruz did. On issues such as immigration, these considerations could put leaders in a tight spot, Senate sources said.