Mitch McConnell at War

by Jonathan Strong
The tough and wily leader is entering the toughest primary challenge of his career.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell likes to say, “If someone flicks a pebble at you, you hurl a boulder back at him.” His political team is just as emphatic. Some Republicans in Kentucky who flirted with working for his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, were told by the McConnell allies that they would get the “death penalty.” Another frequent warning: “Mitch McConnell doesn’t take prisoners.”

McConnell’s team “shoots the wounded on the battlefield as a matter of course,” says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato. A former GOP leadership aide who has seen the McConnell operation up close sounds terrified. “They’re all killers,” he says, without a trace of humor in his voice. “These are not guys to be trifled with. They are burn it down, p*** on it, then blow it up kind of guys.”

And it’s not a secret. The New York Times reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) was blacklisting a GOP ad firm, Jamestown Associates, for working with the Senate Conservative Fund (SCF), which is helping Bevin. Privately, McConnell aides acknowledge that it was McConnell who had Jamestown blacklisted for cutting ads that the SCF ran in Kentucky. McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, spoke to the Times, offering a dark analogy: “The SCF has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican Party like a drunk who tears up every bar they walk into. The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell’s bar, and he doesn’t throw you out, he locks the door.” Holmes, who is now heading McConnell’s campaign committee, later confirmed on Twitter that his quote alluded to a scene in A Bronx Tale in which a group of mafiosos savagely beat members of a biker gang who vandalized their bar — a scene as violent as any in the movies.

In blacklisting Jamestown, McConnell has opened up a new front in what has become an open war between McConnell and Holmes, on the one side, and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint and SCF executive director Matt Hoskins on the other.

Freshly re-provisioned from millions of dollars in donations that flooded in during the government-shutdown episode, Hoskins, a former DeMint aide, invaded enemy territory October 18 when he decided to back Bevin.

For McConnell, this is the direst threat of his career, as he’s now in a two-front war, with Bevin on one flank and Democratic challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes on the other. The wily incumbent is upping the ante, casting the fight as a battle for the future of the Republican party.

“This is an election where you are choosing sides,” says former McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper, now a lobbyist at Fierce, Isakowitz, and Blalock. “We’re finding out where people are. This is not just about the May 2014 primary. This is about the future of the party. Do we want to get to 51 — and, we hope, 55 over time? Or do we want to have 25–30 guys in the Senate who we think are going to be reliably conservative no matter what but who are never able to achieve anything other than drafting a strongly worded white paper?”

Hard-charging Hoskins is undaunted. “Mitch McConnell is doing this because he can’t defend his record and running dirty campaigns is all he knows how to do,” he says. McConnell has often exercised power in D.C. by pressuring major donors to withhold donations from a given lawmaker or organization. His allies on K Street are often the people who deliver this message and “enforce” it. SCF is receiving most of its donations from a large number of individuals who send in small-dollar amounts. McConnell can’t easily pressure these grassroots donors — they aren’t professional politicians and they’re far from D.C.

But the blacklisting of Jamestown has deeply unsettled people involved in the behind-the-scenes machinery of GOP politics. Senator John Cornyn of Texas also canceled a small contract with the firm, which produces political television ads for a wide array of GOP candidates, including many moderates. Cornyn has sought to distance himself from this action, though. “I’m not involved,” he told me.

The scope of the blacklisting is probably limited to Jamestown, which pitched the NRSC on new business even while its anti-McConnell ads were on the air in Kentucky. But the blacklisting has sent a message that seems to be getting out loud and clear. Several other Republican ad firms privately told NRSC officials that they now “understand the rules,” sources say. For now, Jamestown is sticking with the SCF.

McConnell’s scorched-earth tactics are making life difficult for Bevin. A number of Kentucky Republicans both inside and outside his campaign describe McConnell’s team as the campaign equivalent of the NSA — it instantly finds out about anything that happens. Bevin-campaign spokeswoman Rachel Semmel, for instance, had accompanied Bevin to the Fox News studios before she announced she would be going to work for him. A McConnell spy in the green room promptly leaked news of her decision to the Daily Caller.

Bevin’s top consultant, Mark Harris of Cold Spark Media, came under incredible pressure back when McConnell operatives discovered he was considering joining the campaign this spring. A far-reaching group of professional acquaintances initially tried to intervene with Harris, walking through the history of corpses, Republican and Democratic, that McConnell had left in his wake.

In a second phase, several McConnell emissaries suggested that Harris would find lucrative work elsewhere if he dropped the campaign.

A third phase comprised even more strident threats from McConnell allies, who warned Harris that his career would be over if he worked for Bevin’s campaign.

For Harris, the final indignity was when lobbyist Alex Urrea of CSA Strategies found Harris’s father at a Pittsburgh golf course and sternly recommended that he talk his son out of committing career suicide. (Reached by phone, Urrea declined to comment.)

McConnell built the modern Kentucky Republican party, and it now serves as an arm of his campaign, Republicans there say. His network reaches into “the hollers”: It’s not unusual for local Republicans who show up at a Bevin event to receive a phone call and a talking-to about being a “team player.”

McConnell’s network in D.C. is just as extensive. He first worked on the Hill in 1967, and dozens of his former aides occupy top slots in a variety of D.C. businesses. Insiders list Billy Piper, American Crossroads’ Steven Law, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Scott Reed, lobbyist Hunter Bates, and public-relations guru Scott Jennings as top outside McConnell supporters, with Holmes and former Rand Paul hand Jesse Benton coordinating the efforts with the campaign.

In politics as elsewhere, the mind-set of the office tends to trickle down from the top, and that’s the case here. McConnell relishes the fight. He came of political age when Democrats completely dominated Kentucky politics, and they weren’t nice about it. Brawling was a useful skill.

In 2009, McConnell slowly strangled the Senate career of his home-state colleague Senator Jim Bunning. Fearing Bunning was too weak to win, McConnnell’s team leaned on people not to donate money to the incumbent senator, which dried up his financial base. The move was supposed to pave the way for McConnell protégé Trey Grayson. As we now know, Senator Rand Paul intervened, rocking the Kentucky establishment and beating Grayson — and proving that the McConnell machine could be beaten. McConnell adapted, cannily working to bring Paul into his fold, and now Jesse Benton, Paul’s former campaign manager, is a top McConnell soldier.

For all these reasons, McConnell is by far the most formidable adversary to take on DeMint, Hoskins, and the outside conservative groups that have quickly risen to prominence since the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010. In the House, SCF and Heritage Action have run roughshod over Speaker John Boehner, a leader who lacks McConnell’s mean streak. And they’ve been picking off weak moderates for years, striking fear in Republicans.

The question of the upcoming primary season is, Will Hoskins and DeMint be able to handle Mitch’s “killers”?

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.