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.
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.
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.
Late that month, McConnell and Reid sat in the Senate cloak room, seconds away from shaking hands on an iteration of an ethics-reform bill, when DeMint called — reminding McConnell he had a “hold” on the bill, collapsing the deal, and triggering Democratic attacks on the GOP’s ethics woes, Roll Call’s John Stanton reported.
The high-profile tactics began to wear on the Senate Republican establishment. Trent Lott pulled his $7,500 dues payment to the DeMint-led steering committee. About that time, McConnell and other GOP leaders issued a soft warning in several private conversations: Our patience for this kind of thing isn’t limitless, they told DeMint.
In July, DeMint threatened to block the August recess over earmarks. McConnell was eventually forced to appoint a special panel to review the issue, appointing Senator Dick Lugar to lead it. As the 2008 presidential election neared, its work was quietly shelved.
DeMint’s critics have always hated him over something deeper than policy disagreements. In their view, he seemed to go out of his way to make them look bad to the base, pinning blame on the GOP when the true culprits were Democrats in power. A common gripe was that DeMint himself often seemed anxious to get back home despite crucifying others for insufficient commitment to the fight.
That was the backdrop for an episode that remains infamous among DeMint detractors. In July 2008, the South Carolina Republican forced a vote on an AIDS bill, then missed the vote when it was held late on a Friday night. “Dude, where the hell is DeMint?” a cranky Senator Blanche Lincoln asked John Thune in front of reporters. DeMint later said he’d had to attend a family wedding, and that Reid had maneuvered for the vote to be held when he’d be gone to embarrass him.
When the financial markets collapsed in October of 2008, McConnell was instrumental in passing the $700 billion bailout proposed by Bush Treasury secretary Hank Paulson.
At the time, many of the bailout’s proponents had qualms about its implications, and many critics worried about how to stop the market’s free-fall.
Not DeMint and McConnell. McConnell called it “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” DeMint retorted, “I can only hope the House will defeat it.”
After the disastrous November elections — McConnell himself barely survived the fallout of the bailout despite a feeble opponent — Senate Republicans reconvened, bruised and bloodied, to reelect McConnell their leader at a closed-door party meeting.
DeMint stepped forward to propose some changes. Some were technical, like disallowing senators from being the top member of both an authorizing committee and the relevant appropriations committee to ensure a healthy tension over how federal dollars were spent.
But one of the reforms would have struck at the heart of power of seniority in the Senate: DeMint proposed limiting the terms for appropriators and Senate leadership, although McConnell would be grandfathered in under the old rules.
As DeMint recounts in his book The Great American Awakening, McConnell allies lined up at the microphones to angrily argue that enacting term limits on future leadership teams would be seen as a vote of no confidence in McConnell. Realizing the proposal was going to lose, DeMint asked for a single up-or-down vote on the whole package to limit the pain, but another senator objected. When longtime staffer Ed Corrigan tried to remind DeMint that he had the right to withdraw his own proposal, Senator Lamar Alexander, a close McConnell friend, bellowed: “Staff cannot speak at conference meetings!”
The Senate voted on each proposal individually. As the votes came in, Alexander stood at the front of the room, glaring at DeMint. The tallies were embarrassing for the South Carolinian. One fell 36–5, the next 35–4.
A week later, DeMint went to McConnell hat in hand. “Mitch, you kicked my butt,” he said, according to his book. But McConnell’s response enraged him, deepening their rift: “Jim, you can’t change the Senate,” McConnell said.
“Something happens to me when someone says, ‘You can’t,’” DeMint wrote, adding that the lesson from the episode was that “if the people in the Senate wouldn’t change their minds, then I should try to change the people in the Senate.”
In the next months, the president set out to enact Obamacare, and McConnell accomplished perhaps his most notable achievement as minority leader — denying Democrats any Republican cooperation whatsoever.
Taking the reins of the party following the 2006 elections, McConnell had been self-consciously conciliatory to the Democrats. “Gridlock is not my first choice,” McConnell told a local chapter of the Farm Bureau. “My first choice is to accomplish things for the country.” But in 2009, McConnell was itching for a fight with the new president.
For all the criticism he receives from his right, McConnell is genuinely feared by liberals, who have sought to discredit him much more directly over the years. In 2001, The New Republic alleged McConnell had been bought off by Chinese industry interests in a 7,500-word screed in which the author admitted there was no evidence to prove the charge. In 2006, The Washington Monthly issued a preemptive 5,000-word strike against McConnell as he was about to ascend to the minority-leader slot. “He’s a master of Senate rules and procedures . . . who knows how to use threats,” the article warned. Earlier this year — perhaps with an Ashley Judd candidacy in mind? — the Huffington Post dedicated over 17,000 words to McConnell’s supposedly horrible legacy in his home state.
To thwart Obamacare, McConnell spent months methodically talking moderates out of their plans to participate in a big, bipartisan deal with the then-popular president. DeMint himself offered frequent praise of McConnell’s efforts, both in private discussions with McConnell and in conference meetings.
To this day, Democrats blame the law’s unpopularity in part on McConnell’s success. Of course, this led to all sorts of liberal complaints about obstruction that had been mysteriously absent in the Bush era when Reid had been the one tying the Senate in knots.
“It’s unconscionable,” Senator Carl Levin gravely intoned in a long, whiny New Yorker piece. “The obstructionism has become mindless.”
“Senator McConnell is their inspiration, their enforcer, and their enabler,” Senator Dick Durbin told the New York Times in a piece headlined “Senate Republican Leader Finds Weapon in Party Unity.”
DeMint, meanwhile, had set out to “change the Senate,” starting with one of McConnell’s closest friends. He sent a video endorsement and staff help to topple Utah senator Bob Bennett, a top McConnell confidant, in the state’s nominating convention.
The battle was even being waged in McConnell’s backyard. He had pushed out his home-state Senate colleague Jim Bunning by drying up his fundraising and was working to elect Trey Grayson, a young protégé, in his place. DeMint and the Senate Conservatives Fund put their heft behind Rand Paul.
As McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee flew to Florida for a Charlie Crist fundraiser, DeMint was putting resources behind Marco Rubio.
Bennett’s loss, one of the first signs of how powerful the tea-party backlash would be in 2010, had put the fear of God into every Republican incumbent. When Paul crushed Grayson in the May 2010 primary, McConnell knew the situation had become perilous. He moved quickly to smooth the situation, providing unbridled assistance to Paul in the general election.
Two months earlier, he had also begun carrying a card in his pocket with a list of senators who had committed to vote to reelect him as Republican leader once the elections were over.
At the time, as many as seven Republican candidates firmly of the tea-party ethos might have been headed to the Senate, and there was considerable speculation about McConnell’s fate under such conditions. McConnell allies hold it as an article of faith that Hoskins, in interviewing candidates the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC is considering endorsing, seeks a commitment from those candidates not to publicly back McConnell’s reelection as leader — and suspicions over DeMint fomenting a rebellion have long been a sore spot between the two camps.
The issue came up recently when Ben Sasse, a Republican primary candidate for a Nebraska Senate seat, felt moved to tell McConnell to his face he hadn’t made any such pledge in order to quell rampant rumors to the contrary.
Hoskins says the “blood oath” McConnell allies envision is overblown.
“We think Mitch McConnell’s support for liberal policies has hurt the country and badly damaged the Republican brand, but we don’t require candidates to oppose him for Republican leader as a condition of our endorsement. We do ask candidates if they will stand up to him and other leaders when they’re wrong,” Hoskins tells me.
In October, Hoskins polled SCF’s 200,000 donating members. The first (fairly leading) question was, “Do you approve of Mitch McConnell’s record of cutting deals with President Obama to increase the debt limit, raise taxes, and fund Obamacare?” Ninety-nine percent of the 69,811 respondents answered they did not approve. The second question was whether SCF should endorse Bevin over McConnell. Eighty-nine percent said yes.
“This is not me, this is not DeMint. There are a lot of people who are frustrated with leadership in Washington and specifically Mitch McConnell,” Hoskins says.
The 2010 elections also brought disagreements to the fore about which types of candidates the GOP should back. DeMint and SCF picked some gems: Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, in particular.
But DeMint also strongly backed Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who lost disastrously and is now widely viewed as the quintessential example of a self-inflicted wound. At the time, he defended his endorsement of O’Donnell by saying Republicans doomed her candidacy with their criticism of her. It’s no secret he has a different take on elections than the GOP’s consultant class. “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters,” he famously said at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge how someone will act in Washington, though. Rubio championed an immigration bill hated by the Right, and NRSC chairman Jerry Moran, whom DeMint endorsed, is now helping McConnell and Holmes wage war on SCF.
Following the 2010 elections, DeMint and McConnell continued to clash. Just after the election, McConnell fought one last long battle to preserve earmarks, burning up the phone lines in a quiet lobbying campaign that ultimately proved fruitless. Conceding the battle, McConnell made no mention of DeMint, instead crediting the House Republican leadership.
In the debt-ceiling showdown of 2011, DeMint helped lead the “cut, cap, and balance” insurgency. He described McConnell’s plan as “cut, run, and hide.”
Around that time, McConnell and other opponents tried a new approach with DeMint: the silent treatment. The idea was that open conflict was oxygen to the fire of the DeMint legend. “His Achilles’ heel is everyone saying, ‘No comment,’” one Republican told Roll Call. The story noted that senior Republicans had also unsuccessfully tried to recruit Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to take away his chairmanship of the steering committee.
A year later, a seat on the Finance Committee came open. DeMint had sought to join the committee repeatedly in the past, but McConnell gave the seat to Senator Richard Burr, who had never previously expressed interest in it.
After that, DeMint abruptly left the Senate to take over the Heritage Foundation, where McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, works. From his new perch, he has prompted all kinds of ire by transplanting some of his Senate tactics to the think tank. The result is that while the Heritage Foundation may have never been less loved by Republicans in Congress, it has also never been more feared.
With the new band of acolytes he helped recruit driving the debate in the Senate, DeMint’s power has grown. The shutdown marked the first time since Republicans took control of the House that the tea-party wing of the movement was almost fully in control, calling the shots during a showdown with the president.
SCF’s Bevin endorsement prompted McConnell to go nuclear, blacklisting campaign vendors and pressuring the group’s endorsed candidates. But it was a fight long coming.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.