In late December, Sen. Mitch McConnell opted to stay out of negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” a horribly overused misnomer, resulting in the Republican leader looking unusually irrelevant on the sidelines.
Two weeks later, his circumstances changed drastically.
At 9 a.m. this past Sunday morning, McConnell appeared on dueling channels as he trotted out talking points with both precision and indifference to the questions of NBC’s David Gregory and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, later doing the same on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The Sunday talk show tour followed a week in the national spotlight in which McConnell helped broker a last-minute deal with Vice President Joe Biden to raise the tax rate on individual income over $400,000 — a move he had pledged for many years to block, arguing such “class warfare” would burden the wealthy “job creators” and destroy the economy.
While this maneuver saved roughly 99 percent of Americans from seeing their income taxes sharply increase, McConnell faced immediate backlash from conservatives for “caving” in to Democrats’ demands, particularly from Tea Party leaders back home.
Despite a concerted effort by McConnell last year to court such groups — particularly to avoid a Republican primary challenge in his 2014 re-election race — Tea Party leaders from Louisville and Northern Kentucky took the rare step of singling him out with scathing criticism.
David Adams — president of the Tea Party PAC Kentucky Knows Best and the former manager of Rand Paul’s successful 2010 Senate primary campaign — tells LEO Weekly this was “just another disappointment” from McConnell, and he is actively recruiting potential primary challengers for 2014.
Following this criticism, McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, sent an email to supporters that not only strongly defended his compromise, but also attempted to fundraise off of it.
Benton — a former campaign manager for both Rand and Ron Paul whom McConnell shrewdly tapped to stave off Tea Party criticism — said in the email that he has “never been more proud of a boss” than McConnell, and the deal he brokered with the White House “showed the strong, disciplined and savvy leadership that only he can provide.”
John Kemper III — who ran a surprisingly strong Tea Party candidacy for state auditor in 2011 — tells LEO he was shocked and insulted by the “spin” of McConnell’s campaign, which would not fool Republicans back home.
“He’s got something to worry about,” Kemper says. “I anticipate he’ll have a primary, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an independent candidate waiting for him in the general election.”
While Kemper admits such a primary challenger faces steep odds due to McConnell’s massive campaign war chest, he notes that even an unsuccessful challenge could badly damage McConnell going into the general election. Kemper cites Phil Moffett and his underfunded Tea Party run against David Williams for governor in the 2011 Republican primary, as well as the possibility that outside groups could target McConnell with their money.
“There are now national organizations that know how to run campaigns that can help candidates, and you saw what the young guy out of Texas did with Thomas Massie,” says Kemper, referring to the PAC that spent millions to elect the Tea Party candidate to Congress in Kentucky’s 4th District.
But even those in Kentucky’s congressional delegation who voted against and criticized the compromise deal — like Rep. Massie and Sen. Rand Paul – have refrained from direct criticism of McConnell. Even Moffett, whom many speculate wants to run for governor again in 2015, characterized McConnell’s maneuvering as “smart.”
Kemper notes that the reluctance of Massie and Paul — as well as those with future political aspirations — to cross McConnell adds to the difficulty of finding a challenger capable of defeating him.
“Some of those (potential candidates) want to be part of the establishment, so they’re not going to do anything,” Kemper says. “Rand wants to run for president in 2016 and needs McConnell’s donor list, so he’s not going to do anything against him. I don’t see any help coming from those guys.”
As for his Sunday talk show circuit, McConnell used the platform less to defend his brokered deal to raise taxes than to change the subject and frame the fight ahead: the looming deadline for automatic steep budget cuts and raising the nation’s debt ceiling in order to avoid default.
The Sunday hosts all brought up McConnell’s quote following the last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling in 2011, which he labeled as “a hostage that’s worth ransoming” instead of “shooting.”
McConnell intentionally and repeatedly dodged answering if he would take the “hostage” again — with the ransom being large and unpopular cuts to Medicare and Social Security, as well as no defense budget cuts — but all indications suggest he and Republicans are set on that course.
But taking such a hostage has enormous risks. Failure to raise the debt ceiling by mid to late February — which means the government could not pay back money it has already spent — would put the full faith and credit of the U.S. in jeopardy, shut down much of the federal government, and throw the world economy into turmoil.
Such influential conservatives as Newt Gingrich and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have warned Republicans that such devastating consequences mean they should refrain from using the debt ceiling as a bargaining tool. But the emerging civil war between Republicans in Congress — and the failure of some to even grasp what the debt ceiling is (intentionally or not) — increases the odds that such a tactic will be used.
McConnell will once again be a key player in this decision, and those back home in Kentucky — including increasingly wary Republicans — will be watching.