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.
One key to McConnell’s success has been the support he has won from Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul. While McConnell didn’t endorse Paul in the primary, he backed him enthusiastically in the general election. “Their personal relationship grew. They sit together at lunch, and their wives are very, very friendly,” says Jesse Benton, who serves as McConnell’s campaign manager. McConnell staffers have worked for Paul, and over the years, friendships have blossomed between the two staffs. “[Paul chief of staff] Doug Stafford and [McConnell chief of staff] Josh Holmes are really good friends and they talk all the time,” Benton adds. Paul has endorsed McConnell, and has defended him against some of the tea-party criticism, noting that McConnell’s leadership position presents him with unique challenges.
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.
Another prominent tea partier boosting McConnell is Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio. This week, Rubio praised McConnell at a fundraiser in Kentucky. “Mitch McConnell’s quiet, principled leadership is key to everything we accomplish on Capitol Hill,” Rubio enthused. “The way he fought Obamacare, tooth and nail, and forced the Democrats to use extraordinary measures to pass it, was a critical catalyst in electing my entire class of Senate conservatives in 2010. Without Mitch, I don’t know that we’d have Senator Rubio, Senator Johnson, Senator Paul, or Senator Lee.” With friends like that, it’s harder for tea partiers to argue that McConnell is unacceptable — despite the fact that McConnell voted for TARP and to hike the debt ceiling.
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.