As he was ascending to the pinnacle of power in the Senate Republican conference almost exactly seven years ago, Mitch McConnell planted the seeds of a feud that could conceivably end his career this May.
Democrats, capitalizing on the public’s weariness with the Iraq War and outrage at the GOP’s Abramoff-era corruption, had taken control of both houses of Congress. And McConnell had been unanimously elected minority leader.
As they are today, Republicans were searching for a way to reconnect with the public. McConnell, for example, canceled an annual lobbyist-funded retreat at the tony Greenbrier resort in West Virginia in favor of a modest get-together at the Library of Congress.
A young freshman senator had another idea — a war on earmarks. And on an unseasonably warm day in early December of 2006, Senate Republicans elected Jim DeMint the head of the Steering Committee, the GOP’s informal conservative caucus.
DeMint told Congressional Quarterly that McConnell had encouraged him to run for the spot.
But the two clashed immediately over an omnibus appropriations bill. Most Republicans in the Senate saw it as the last chance to put the GOP’s imprint on spending priorities. DeMint viewed the bill, chock full of earmarks, as a middle finger to the voters who had just sent Republicans packing. The bill was scuttled and the issue punted into the next year.
The dispute was far from their last. And now, with DeMint’s political protégé, Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) head Matt Hoskins, backing McConnell’s primary opponent in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, the most surprising thing may be how long it took for the two camps to wage an open fight to the death.
Their feud has been one of the most enduring — and important — clashes within the ranks of the Republican party. Team McConnell thinks DeMint is a self-destructive showboat whose tactics, such as the government shutdown, can lead only to disaster. Team DeMint thinks McConnell is a petty, vindictive tyrant who pushes a mushy agenda behind the scenes. The battle raging in Kentucky is the culmination of seven years of on-and-off conflict.
It would be a mistake to think the feud is merely a personal grudge match or an escalating series of retaliatory strikes. Over the years, DeMint has often seemed almost oblivious to how his aggressive tactics would be received by GOP colleagues, focused only on the merits of his arguments. McConnell, meanwhile, is a calculating man who exercises power efficiently and is unlikely to be swayed by wrath.
Although DeMint and McConnell have had their share of tense personal interactions, a good deal of the fighting has occurred at the staff level. In particular, McConnell aides put much of the blame for DeMint’s alleged transgressions on Hoskins, a former DeMint chief of staff who now operates SCF from California’s Central Valley independently from DeMint. “Matt Hoskins can’t go more than three paces in this town without letting people know how he feels about Mitch McConnell,” says a senior McConnell operative. DeMint, then the group’s chairman, vowed in 2010 not to use the political-action committee to target Republican incumbents, and sources familiar with the matter say he had no input on Hoskins’s decision to back Bevin.
McConnell, for his part, has a deep bench of enforcers on his staff, at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and on K Street who have been putting the screws to SCF’s vendors and endorsed candidates. Leading the effort is Josh Holmes, his former chief of staff now running the NRSC. The origin of the clash may lie in a period of introspection DeMint went through after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006.
Following the election, DeMint surveyed the wreckage. “He asked himself what Republican had done with their majorities in the Bush years to advance conservative principles,” a Republican close to DeMint recalls.
The answer was, to DeMint, not much. They had enacted a big new entitlement in the form of Medicare Part D, furthered Washington’s reach into local schools with No Child Left Behind, passed an arguably unconstitutional campaign-finance bill, worsened the debt in part through rampant use of earmarks, and fought unsuccessfully for amnesty. The moment was a wakeup call for DeMint. Eight days into the new, Democratic-controlled 110th Congress, DeMint formed an unlikely alliance with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in urging the Senate to adopt the House’s ethics-reform package, which offered sweeping changes on earmarks. Commandeering the Senate floor for hours, the South Carolina Republican proclaimed: “In this case, Speaker Pelosi has it right.”
Harry Reid, the new Senate majority leader, pushed back, urging colleagues to instead back the “Reid-McConnell” package. The measure would have required bills to disclose which lawmakers had requested each earmark, rather than banning the practice altogether. McConnell thought disclosure would prevent wasteful spending while protecting important projects: “Frankly, the earmarking that I’ve done I’ve bragged about,” he explained to the Associated Press. Indeed, in his 2008 reelection campaign, McConnell methodically reminded each part of Kentucky which federal dollars he had secured for them. When his Democratic opponent tried to go on offense, assailing him for wasteful spending, McConnell was dismissive.
“I got $500 million for Kentucky,” he said at one stop. “Which part of that would you like rather seen go somewhere else? Would [local university president] Jim Votruba rather see $5 million at NKU spent somewhere else?” (“I can tell you, Jim Votruba does not want this money to go elsewhere,” Votruba said hours later.)
When Reid moved to table DeMint’s effort, he lost the vote, to the shock of almost everyone involved. (One of Reid’s nine defectors: Barack Obama.)
McConnell voted with his fellow Republican. And when the DeMint “rising star” headlines started rolling in, the Kentucky Republican was a good sport. In April 2007, he told The Weekly Standard he was a “big DeMint fan,” though he noted the South Carolinian had a “different operational style.”
“He can’t be out there, because he has to keep the conference together,” DeMint explained at the time, also playing nice.
In June, immigration exacerbated the tension. McConnell worked behind the scenes to push President George W. Bush’s bill, while DeMint helped mobilize the grassroots uprising that killed it.