A few hundred conservatives are gathered on the steps of the capitol in Frankfort, carrying Gadsden flags and Koch brother-funded “Americans for Prosperity” signs. As the crowd cheers on speakers denouncing the federal government, it looks like any other Tea Party rally that’s sprouted up in Kentucky since 2009.
But there’s one big difference: Sen. Mitch McConnell is at the microphone.
Despite a historically icy relationship, McConnell accepted the invitation to speak at his first ever Tea Party rally, railing against President Obama’s health care law, with Kentucky’s junior senator and Tea Party hero Rand Paul at his side.
“Bright, capable, effective — an extraordinary new senator from Kentucky and my teammate, Rand Paul!” McConnell says. “I’m so grateful that you all helped get him elected in 2010. He’s a national leader, making a difference for Kentucky and America.”
Just moments earlier, Paul heaped praise on McConnell, calling him “a man who has been more vocal against Obamacare than probably anyone in Washington.”
Such a love fest would have been unthinkable a few years ago, as Mitch McConnell was far from a model conservative in the eyes of Paul and many of the same Tea Partiers now cheering him on.
Almost three years ago to the day, in fact — on Aug. 30, 2009 — the underdog Republican Senate campaign of political newcomer Rand Paul made a statement on his website blasting his frontrunner primary opponent, then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson. His opponent had the gall to attend a big-money D.C. fundraiser on his behalf thrown by GOP senators who had voted for one of the most despised pieces of legislation among his Tea Party brethren: the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which bailed out some of the largest banks in America, to the tune of $700 billion.
In his statement, Paul pledged not to take one dime from those senators, writing that “a primary focus of my campaign is that we need Republicans in office who will have the courage to say no to federal bailouts of big business.”
The top dog among those senators — at what his campaign dubbed the “Bailout Ball” — just happened to be the one who handpicked Grayson to run: Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Paul would go on to stomp Grayson in a blowout victory the following May, painting himself as a Republican who would restore the conservative principles abandoned by leaders of his party, which had spent the last decade exploding the federal debt with wasteful spending and earmarks.
McConnell — a proud architect of TARP who ran his 2008 re-election campaign bragging about his power and prowess in bringing millions of dollars in pork to Kentucky — should be forever grateful that his term did not end in 2010, as he likely would have spent the last two years watching Senate proceedings on C-SPAN from his Highlands condo.
While many Tea Partiers still revile McConnell as the embodiment of a “RINO” — Republican in name only — those days of contention between him and Paul appear to be a thing of the past. And at least on the surface, the Tea Party seems to think so, too.
But is Mitch McConnell’s Tea Party romance the real thing, or just tenuous political theater that could snap at any time?
In the days following Rand Paul’s blowout victory over McConnell’s protégé in the primary, his campaign imploded on national TV. After 15 excruciating minutes on “The Rachel Maddow Show” refusing to say whether he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and an ABC appearance during which he called the Obama administration’s criticism of BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill “un-American” — adding that “sometimes accidents happen” — McConnell and GOP politicos swooped in to save Paul from himself.
Paul abruptly canceled an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and went silent (minus later interviews with friendly media), with a chuckling McConnell on CNN backhandedly explaining, “I think he’s said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage.”
David Adams, Paul’s campaign manager known for vitriol against McConnell, abruptly exited stage left. And with dizzying speed, Paul flipped on a string of policy positions — moderating his straight-talk libertarian rhetoric that was reminiscent of his father, Ron Paul — culminating in a D.C. fundraiser thrown by McConnell and all those bailout senators he swore he’d never associate with just a year before.
McConnell, whose worst enemies would concede is a master in the black arts of campaigning, helped right the ship, and Paul would go on to easily defeat state Attorney General Jack Conway in November.
For the first two years of Sen. Paul’s term, there have remained considerable policy differences with McConnell, from foreign policy and international aid to trying foreign terrorists and domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens. But the biggest difference — the one that landed McConnell in hot water with Tea Partiers — was on the decision to raise the debt ceiling.
Though raising the debt ceiling is a common occurrence that rarely involves debate, the Tea Party freshmen class insisted they would not let it happen, despite the fact that such a move would put America in danger of defaulting on its debt. At the last minute, McConnell struck a bargain with Obama to raise it in return for dramatic budget cuts.
Immediately afterwards, bragging about the cuts he secured, McConnell opined, “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this: It’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”
The next day, the Standard and Poor’s credit rating agency came into the home of the hostage — the American economy — and cut off its leg, downgrading the United States’ debt. Explaining their move, they cited the very presence of the unfathomable debate over whether to raise it. The stock market proceeded to plummet.
While McConnell faced criticism for his bargain with Obama — which CNN contributor and popular conservative blogger Erick Erickson called “the Pontius Pilot Act” — Sen. Paul did not directly call him out, though he strongly disapproved of the move. In fact, neither Rand Paul nor Mitch McConnell has publicly criticized the other since the post-primary media storm of 2010, despite their many differences.
And while many Tea Partiers (and Democrats) are itching for a primary challenge to McConnell’s right in 2014, Paul let America know which team he was on this past March when he virtually endorsed six more years of McConnell.
“Sen. Paul and Leader McConnell have forged a strong relationship and created a number of pieces of legislation on behalf of their shared constituents,” Paul’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “It’s clear the commonwealth is best served with their combined efforts now and in the future.”
But while McConnell is getting along swimmingly with Paul, the jury is still out among Kentucky’s Tea Party rank and file. A purge of GOP establishment Senate candidates is sweeping the nation, and many are looking at McConnell — the biggest one of all — to fall in the next round of primaries in 2014.
Enter the master of the black arts and a political shotgun marriage that could impact the state and country for years to come.
Whatever lingering misgivings some Tea Partiers might have about McConnell, there was very little outward evidence of it as he spoke at last week’s rally, as they cheered every swipe at a health care law they mutually despise.
McConnell put the hyperbole and exaggeration into overdrive while chucking red meat at the rabid crowd, calling it “the single worst piece of legislation in American modern times” and suggesting that “Obamacare” put the health care of “all 306 million Americans” into the hands of the government — wildly inaccurate but unfortunately common rhetoric for both the Tea Party and McConnell when discussing the Affordable Care Act.
After calling it “the Europeanizing of America,” a woman in the front of the crowd couldn’t contain shrieking “Nazism!” back at him. You might call that the Tea Party version of “Amen!”
After McConnell credited and thanked the Tea Party for pressuring all Republicans in Congress to vote against the law, both he and Paul bolted for the parking lot, passing on mingling with the crowd — or reporters.
During his brief appearance, McConnell managed to win over at least a few Tea Partiers in the crowd, including Paul Johnson of Walton, Ky.
Johnson — who attends Tea Party rallies dressed as a petite George Washington and once had a fascinating conversation with me about Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate — says McConnell is now an official member of the Tea Party.
“I think this will convince him,” Johnson says. “I’m sure he is.”
As for McConnell’s past transgressions: “He can be forgiven,” laughs Johnson. “We all live and learn. What I’m saying is, we either kill Obamacare, or it’s going to kill us.”
But McConnell didn’t win over everyone.
Frank Harris, a devoted Tea Partier from Lexington, carried a sign that read “There’s no tea in Mitch,” telling multiple media outlets that an unrepentant McConnell was trying to co-opt the movement in order to avoid a Tea Party primary challenge, which he supports.
Jay Weyland, of Cynthiana, who stood in the front of the crowd with a sign that read “The Income Tax is Immoral,” agrees this was a transparent act of desperation from a man who fears political extinction.
“I think that McConnell sees the handwriting on the wall,” Weyland says. “He didn’t help any Tea Party candidates in 2010, and we kicked his ass with Trey Grayson. And that scared the bejesus out of him. I think he’s realizing that he could conceivably lose next time. He’s just been there too long.”
Weyland — leader of the Lexington 9/12 Project, the eccentric Tea Party offshoot creation of Glenn Beck — says McConnell’s bargain with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling is one of his many unforgivable crimes against conservatives.
John Kemper III — who ran a surprisingly competitive statewide campaign last year as a Republican candidate for state auditor, despite his opponent spending 16 times what he did — is taking a more cautious view of McConnell.
“Ronald Reagan’s famous saying was ‘trust but verify,’” Kemper says. “(McConnell) said the right things, but to me, actions speak louder than words.”
In the past, Kemper says he’s faced heat from the state party for criticizing McConnell but feels compelled to point out that many of the policies supported by the senator — as well as other GOP congressmen in the state — violate civil liberties and are contrary to Republican principles.
“When you’ve got the Republican side wanting to take your liberties, but yet they’re here for a health care freedom rally, does that mesh? Do your actions match what you’re saying?”
Kemper says he’s not running against McConnell in 2014 and is doubtful any credible Tea Partier will challenge him.
“The bottom line is, who is going to raise $20 to $25 million?” he asks, adding that it would be political suicide to go against McConnell’s hefty campaign chest and forever be seen as an enemy by the state’s party leadership if he or she loses.
When asked why Paul has refrained from criticizing McConnell, Kemper says the junior senator is focused on trying to get a seat at the table in order to be involved in discussions. While he says some in the Tea Party think Paul — who also endorsed Mitt Romney for president without criticizing him in the primary — is beginning to sell out, Kemper disagrees.
“I’m not so much worried about Rand selling out as I am the other folks getting up there on stage for a photo op for 2014, saying ‘Yeah, the Tea Party is with me,’ and then once you’re elected you have six years to do what you want.”
While you might not put much stock in the opinion of a man dressed like George Washington, the suggestion that Mitch McConnell would change his political identity as the winds change isn’t altogether unrealistic based on his history.
Much of the conventional wisdom on McConnell is that he is a man with little use for ideology, driven simply by his desire to acquire as much power as possible, by any legal means necessary.
But his professed ideology has transformed over the years. While a college intern for the legendary moderate Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper in the 1960s, McConnell looked down at the radical Goldwater movement — certainly an ideological ancestor of the Tea Party — and was a proud Rockefeller Republican, supporting the Civil Rights Acts and (according to his biography) opposing the Vietnam War.
McConnell was first elected as Jefferson County judge-executive in 1977 and remained quite moderate, opposing Ronald Reagan in the Republican primaries of 1976 and 1980. Shocking as it seems now, he supported collective bargaining for public employees and public financing of elections, receiving multiple endorsements from The Courier-Journal.
Once the Reagan Revolution swept America in the 1980s — and McConnell eyed the seat in the U.S. Senate that he would win in 1984 — his ideology rolled hard to the right, joining the military hawks and Christian conservatives of the new right-wing.
McConnell would become more conservative over the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, ditching his previous support for campaign finance reform to become perhaps the strongest advocate in American history of unlimited political contributions for campaigns and advertisements (or as he calls it, free speech).
But as he climbed up the ladder of party leadership in the Senate, McConnell found and used to his great advantage one of the perks of power: directing large sums of federal tax dollars back to his district through appropriations and earmarks.
While McConnell kept money flowing to Kentucky, the administration of George W. Bush and the Republican Congress turned the surplus of 2000 into the largest deficit in American history. Add in the financial collapse of 2008, the ensuing bailouts, and the victory of a man named Barack Hussein Obama, and the Tea Party was born.
While the establishment GOP viewed this new movement with suspicion — though certainly enjoying their roasting of Obama and the Democratic agenda — they began to fret during the 2010 primaries as the Tea Party purged incumbents and establishment Republican candidates all over the country, with Rand Paul leading the way in Kentucky.
Those candidates would win big in November, as the GOP took back the House and gained seats in the Senate. While they would clash internally with party leadership, they served as useful allies in blocking Obama’s agenda.
However, the Tea Party purge of the old guard was not yet finished. In this year’s GOP primaries, insurgent Senate candidates won upsets in Texas, Nebraska and Missouri (hello, Todd “legitimate rape” Akin). But their biggest prize — what certainly had to alarm McConnell — was the defeat of 35-year Sen. Dick Lugar, who faced a blowout loss across the river in Indiana to radical right-wing Tea Partier Richard Mourdock.
Two years ago, it was inconceivable that a senator like Lugar — with sky-high approval ratings and a strong conservative record — could be vulnerable. But despite voting in complete lockstep against Obama’s legislative agenda, a few votes from the recent past — such as TARP and the debt ceiling — came back to haunt him. Lugar, with all his seniority and power, did not pass the Tea Party purity test.
Adding to McConnell’s paranoia was Thomas Massie’s GOP primary victory back home in Kentucky’s 4th congressional district. A Rand Paul-styled conservative/libertarian who was relatively new to politics, Massie took on two establishment career politicians who had received endorsements from influential incumbents and traditional conservative groups. But with a campaign focused on severely limited government and opposition to the Patriot Act (as well as loads of out-of-state money from Ron Paul supporters) Massie cruised to an easy victory.
These Tea Party upsets of the old Republican guard along the Ohio River might have been enough to make Mitch McConnell think he should start going to these Tea Party rallies he’s been hearing so much about.
Courier-Journal columnist John David Dyche, who penned the glowing 2009 biography of McConnell, “Republican Leader,” is seen by some Kentucky political observers as the oracle into which you can read McConnell’s current political mindset.
Dyche sees McConnell’s presence at last week’s Tea Party rally as a natural shift to go along with the changing makeup of his party.
“He has, historically over his career I think, reflected where the Republican Party is, generally,” Dyche says. “And I think he is still doing that. And since the Tea Party’s influence within the party has risen, I think he’s moving to reflect that.”
But while he sees a genuine McConnell shift toward the Tea Party on fiscal matters — which he thinks is good — Dyche says his differences with the movement on other issues, like foreign policy, will prevent a full immersion
“I don’t think he’ll ever necessarily be a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, but I think he’s at least moving to establish a modus vivendi where they can peacefully co-exist.”
Trey Grayson, now the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, says McConnell’s new outreach to the Tea Party isn’t a desperate move for survival or an ideological makeover, but a reflection of the fact that the Tea Party has gained such influence within the party. Just like Democrats speak to labor groups and Republicans speak to anti-abortion groups, the Tea Party cannot be ignored.
“I don’t think you’ll ever view him as a Tea Party leader,” Grayson says. “But I think the goal is to have these various coalitions that think of you as being supportive of your ambitions and don’t want to turn to somebody else.”
Former Rand Paul campaign manager David Adams — now executive director of Kentucky Knows Best, a Tea Party PAC he formed last year — says McConnell’s presence at the rally is certainly a sign that the Tea Party has arrived as a major player, but it’s also a sign that the state’s longest-serving senator wants to stave off a challenge from the right in 2014.
“Sen. McConnell needs to represent Kentuckians’ interests, and he wants to run for re-election in 2014,” Adams says. “And there’s no doubt that this is an effort with that in mind, so that’s part of it as well.”
But whether someone emerges from his right — or his left, with a focus on civil liberties and foreign policy — a challenger largely depends on how the Tea Party takes to McConnell’s new overtures as they keep a watchful eye on whether he begins to stray from his rhetoric.
Tea Party leaders — including Paul, most definitely on the top of their totem pole — have been virtually absent from any direct criticism of McConnell since the 2010 primary. According to Adams, that’s because they have to leave acrimony aside and work with McConnell on issues like Obamacare.
“It’s time for a more mature conversation,” Adams says. “I think there’s been some name-calling going both ways. I’ll plead guilty to my part in that. But we have a country to manage, and I think that the Tea Party has earned a seat at the table.
“If you’re negotiating with somebody and they’re showing good faith, perhaps from our perspective it’s not necessarily the time to be biting his hand.”
Some in the Tea Party think letting McConnell speak at their rally is selling out, and some are critical of Paul’s cozy relationship with McConnell and Mitt Romney. And though a divide remains, Adams says a dialogue is crucial.
“That’s going to involve some persuasion of people who are persuadable,” Adams says. “And that involves some social skills that go beyond just yelling and screaming.”
Going forward, Grayson suggests the Tea Party will face a choice: purity or pragmatism.
“There’s probably a sweet spot where you’re more pragmatic without being a sell-out” Grayson says. “And whether the Tea Party leaders … and their followers, can come to that is an interesting question.”
The pragmatic move for the Tea Party, Grayson says, would be to not challenge McConnell in 2014, instead working with him and his considerable power, as Rand Paul has done. Plus, he says, no one could compete with McConnell’s bottomless war chest.
In Politico this summer, McConnell’s staff not so subtly shot off a warning to any potential challengers, Republican or Democrat, noting that the senator has a history of obliterating his opponents’ reputations with devastating negative ads, which they compared to the wood-chipper scene at the end of “Fargo.”
John David Dyche agrees, adding that such a run would be quixotic without the blessing of Paul, who won’t turn on McConnell.
“Paul is still the phenomenon in Kentucky,” Dyche says. “Nobody in the Tea Party movement can do anything without Paul’s consent or help.”
However, Grayson warns that McConnell shouldn’t pander to the Tea Party too much, as their core activists don’t make up a significant percentage of the population, and their approval rating among general election voters has started to come back to earth.
While that may be true, polls show Tea Partiers have started warming up to McConnell, at least nationally. A tracking poll done by Public Policy Polling shows that while he actually had higher disapproval ratings among Tea Partiers nationally last summer, his approval rating recently shot up to around 50 percent, most likely due to his constant barrage on President Obama and success at filibustering every legislative piece of his agenda that has a chance of passing — which happens to be the theme of a campaign video he released this summer.
But Dyche also contends that McConnell has made a significant move to the right on fiscal issues, noting that he voted for Paul’s budget plan, which is “hard to get to the right of” and “makes some pretty drastic cuts.”
Indeed it does, as the Paul budget takes a chainsaw to the federal budget, eliminating multiple departments, including the Department of Education. The impact of these cuts on a state like Kentucky, so reliant on federal tax dollars to remain afloat, could be devastating — not just on a personal level for citizens, but on a political level for anyone who votes for it.
And that’s where the Democratic Party comes in.
Democrats, both within the state and all around the country, would like nothing more than to send the No. 1 obstructer of their legislative agenda into retirement. A bitter primary fight with a Tea Party candidate either knocking McConnell out or splitting his base if he survives wounded into the general election would be ideal.
But regardless of whether McConnell is challenged in the primary, it’s hard to argue that his move to the right to dance with the Tea Party won’t make him more vulnerable.
Asked about McConnell’s presence at last week’s Tea Party rally, Kentucky Democratic Party spokesman Matt Erwin says, “It’s sad to say that there won’t be a single voice in the U.S. Senate speaking for moderate Kentuckians.”
While the KDP has been reluctant to publicly criticize McConnell’s leadership over the past few years, the past few months have seen a slight uptick in pointed barbs toward McConnell, including a tweet following the rally stating: “Heard about the big turnout of 300 at the Tea Party Rally. That’s the exact number of people it takes to get Mitch McConnell to sell out.”
While Erwin says the party is focused on state House races this November — with Republicans claiming they can win the majority of seats — he adds that Kentuckians are ready for a change.
“Having gone across the state and talked to a lot of Kentuckians, there’s a lot of people out there who are very excited about the prospect of voting against Mitch McConnell in 2014,” Erwin says.
The last poll in Kentucky tends to bear that out, as Public Policy Polling last fall showed McConnell with an abysmal favorable rating of 37 percent, with 50 percent unfavorable. And on the off chance that Obama loses to Romney in November, this absence of a common enemy to play defense against could open McConnell up to more infighting with Tea Party congressmen.
But in order to knock out McConnell, you have to have a candidate. And as of right now, it looks like no big-name Democrats are willing to risk McConnell’s wood-chipper.
Former state auditor Crit Luallen was almost universally seen as the most credible challenger to McConnell, but she has already stated flatly she won’t run. Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway have also ruled out the possibility. Current Auditor Adam Edelen says a run is unlikely, but Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes hasn’t ruled it out.
When asked whether he might make a bid for Senate, Rep. John Yarmuth says, “I’m focused on my own race right now. But Sen. McConnell is very unpopular in Kentucky, even in his own party. And after this election, my top political priority is finding the best candidate to ensure Sen. McConnell is a retired five-term senator.”
But until the filing deadline for that race in January 2014, the master of black arts will continue his political balancing act, with his finger in the wind and his eyes on the polls.