While chatter about a possible Tea Party primary challenge to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell remains, he has thus far successfully prevented any challengers from emerging. If this continues, McConnell will likely repeat Utah senator Orrin Hatch’s success in getting reelected. Like Hatch, who also faced the challenge of being perceived as an establishment figure in a red state that had most recently elected a tea-party senator, McConnell has aggressively worked to burnish his conservative bona fides and to connect with establishment-wary Republicans, long before the primary election.
McConnell has actively sought a relationship with tea partiers, too. “His staff has done, we estimate, over 100 meetings with tea-party groups,” Benton notes. “His Senate staff is regularly attending tea-party meetings across the state.” Benton, who joined the McConnell campaign team last year, had previously worked for both Rand Paul and Ron Paul. And McConnell’s conservative coordinator, Erica Suares, who worked for Jim DeMint and Mitt Romney, is involved in ensuring McConnell’s office is aware of tea-party priorities.
Paul isn’t the only Kentucky tea partier who has helped McConnell. Earlier this month Thomas Massie, a freshman congressman and tea partier, told Kentucky radio station WFPL that “my advice to people who are frustrated with Washington is that there’s probably a better way to spend your time, effort, money, blood, sweat, and tears than trying to have Senator McConnell unelected.” McConnell didn’t endorse a candidate in the GOP primary that Massie contested but, after Massie emerged victorious, he stepped in to work to help him win the general election.
GOP aides also make the point that McConnell is no Johnny-come-lately to the tea party movement, highlighting his work against the stimulus and his strong and sustained opposition to Obamacare, both issues that emerged early in President Obama’s first term. McConnell praised the Tea Party in a 2011 speech, saying, “The Tea Party has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the most important issues of the day.”
There’s no doubt McConnell will be keeping an eye on the right flank of the GOP in the months to come. But at this point, he looks more likely to be a Hatch than a Lugar.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.