Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is officially the second most powerful Republican in Washington, ranking behind only House Speaker John Boehner in terms of seniority.
But McConnell is finding that he may also be the second most powerful Republican in his home state of Kentucky, where his freshman colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, has electrified local Tea Party activists, rocketed to the top of conservative's 2016 presidential contender lists, and, along with Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, staked out far-right positions on political issues so early that McConnell has had little choice but to follow in Paul’s footsteps or face criticism for being insufficiently conservative, a label longtime Kentucky politicos say would be laughable in any other political environment.
Although McConnell still dominates the power structure of the state GOP, he is increasingly having to take his junior colleague's moves into account, particularly because of the continued strength of the tea party in Kentucky.
"There are major differences between how Rand goes about what he's doing in Washington and how McConnell goes about what he's doing," says Scott Hofstra, a spokesman with the United Kentucky Tea Party, which was instrumental in Paul's election in 2010. 'Mitch McConnell gives the impression that it's all about his power, his authority. The future is all about him. That's not the case with Rand."
The Rand Paul effect would be difficult for any veteran senator to deal with, but McConnell's challenge is made all the more tricky by the inherent conflict between his role as Senate minority leader, which is typically the domain of relentless dealmakers, and the fact that he is facing aggressive opposition in his reelection effort from both a Tea Party-backed candidate on the right and the state’s Democratic secretary of State on the left. The result, political observers say, is a Senate minority leader with very little room to maneuver at home, and even less room to negotiate as the leader of Senate Republicans in Washington.
“Every issue has danger on one side or the other for McConnell and he can't hide, because he's the head of the Republicans in the Senate,” says Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “It's a really difficult position and between the two challengers, they know they've got him on the hot seat every time a major issue arises.”
No issue has put McConnell's dilemma on display more vividly than the complicated policy question of whether the United States should intervene in the Syrian civil war. While Sen. Paul quickly announced in August that he would oppose any and all action in Syria, and John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid came out in support of intervention after a meeting at the White House in early September, McConnell, who strongly backed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remained the only Congressional leader to stay mum on how he would vote.
McConnell again stayed silent on Monday, when Harry Reid went to the Senate floor to call for air strikes, but Sen. Dan Coats—not McConnell-- took the Republicans Leader’s time to say he would oppose the president.
While McConnell kept his position to himself, Tea Party groups bombarded his office with emails and phone calls telling him to oppose any American action. McConnell’s Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin, said he was adamantly opposed to airstrikes and accused McConnell of shirking his leadership responsibilities by remaining undecided. “I’m offended, frankly, by the non-stance of Mitch McConnell,” Bevin told Breitbart.com.
When McConnell did finally announce that he would oppose action in Syria, he did so in a winding, 25-minute speech on the Senate floor. Hours after that, McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton (who was also Paul's campaign manager) wrote to the campaign’s donors, with McConnell’s floor speech attached, praising the minority leader for never allowing politics to shade his thinking on national security.
“Mitch made it very clear to me from the beginning that he does not politicize issues of national security,” Benton wrote. “He believes that America’s strength in the world should not be subject to the political theatre that so often takes hold of Washington these days.” After more praise for his boss, Benton finished, “Anything that you can contribute will go a long way towards our goal.”
Even though McConnell eventually arrived at the same position as most of the Tea Party groups in Kentucky, they still hammered him for taking so long to make up his mind. That observation is echoed among top Senate staffers, both Democratic and Republican, who say they see McConnell’s reelection in Kentucky coinciding with a more cautious, less visible role for McConnell driving the Senate Republican agenda.
“The fact of the matter is, for months now, Senator McConnell has been all but MIA from the Senate floor,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when Reid was up for reelection in 2010. “To borrow a riff from an old ad of McConnell’s, we need a bloodhound to find his involvement in the Senate these days. That’s a real problem.”
Manley described McConnell in the past as a keen negotiator who worked deals and delivered Republican votes on everything from increasing the debt ceiling to TARP to major budget compromises “with the minimum amount of fingerprints necessary. He didn’t go out and brag about what he did. He did it and then he went on.”
But Manley says the apparent constraints placed on McConnell by his efforts to get reelected could have significant ramifications in the months ahead in Washington as deadlines for the debt ceiling, annual appropriations, and sequestration loom and the White House and Senate Democrats look for a willing and able Republican partner to push compromises through the House and Senate.
“As we move into a fall dominated by the budget, the real problem the president is going to have is he has no one to negotiate with. He can’t negotiate with Speaker Boehner and because of McConnell’s fear of a primary challenge, he won’t be able to lead either,” says Manley.
Although McConnell has the relationships and the track record to help move those deals through the Senate, few people expect McConnell to take the lead on finding middle ground with Democrats on issues like raising the debt ceiling that are unpopular but necessary.
“The last person who pitched himself as a technocratic moderate Republican was Trey Grayson, who got trounced by Rand Paul in a Senate Republican primary,” said Prof. Voss, referring to Paul’s 2010 Senate GOP primary opponent, whom McConnell endorsed two weeks before he lost to Paul by more than 20 points. “I can see how that would make one a little cautious about playing up experience and the ability to get things done."
But McConnell has made one deal at home this year that is more important
than anything he could do in Washington. Rand Paul has endorsed him for the Senate in 2014.