Back in March, Mitch McConnell predicted that he and his fellow members of the establishment wing of the GOP were “going to crush” the Tea Party “everywhere,” predicting that the insurgents “were not going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
McConnell did his part, backing victorious incumbents around the country and easily dispatching his own Tea Party challenger last month.
But with Republicans looking more and more likely to retake the Senate, the Tea Party has a message for McConnell: You are not finished with us yet.
Conservative activists now say that whether or not the GOP takes control next November, replacing McConnell as Senate leader with a true believer is their top priority.
In New Orleans last week at the Republican Leadership Conference, a semi-annual gathering of conservative activists, speaker after speaker on the convention’s main stage alluded to their disappointment with the old-school, deal-making brand of politics that McConnell symbolizes.
“It’s no secret that the activist arm of the Republican Party is very disappointed with McConnell,” said one Tea Party activist, who requested anonymity to avoid antagonizing the party’s premier power broker. “The best scenario for a lot of people is if the Republicans retake the Senate and lose McConnell.”
Among the “conservative reformers” and Tea Party types interviewed for this article, there is little illusion that unseating McConnell will be easy or even possible. The math simply isn’t there. At most, 10 Republican senators relied on significant Tea Party support to get into office. Rather, the hope is to rattle the cages a bit and make sure that the leadership of the Senate reflects the energy in the ranks.
A lack of contenders to replace McConnell also makes a putsch unlikely. Many of the most popular Tea Party Republicans, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, are thought to be laying the groundwork for a presidential run.
One name that came up in repeated discussions was Utah Sen. Mike Lee, though he was only elected in 2010.
Asked at the RLC about whether McConnell should remain the Republican leader, Lee did not give an unequivocal yes.
“I will support whoever our leader is,” Lee said. “And to my knowledge the only one who is running is him, and I will support whoever our leader is.”
Lee added, however, that the leadership of the Senate would change as more conservatives came into the body.
“Step 1 is we take the Senate back. Step 2 is to get somebody with strong conservative principles in as Senate majority leader.”
“The leadership in the Senate will tend to reflect where the conference is, where the center of gravity is within the Republican conference.”
This year’s Tea Party versus establishment primaries, activists say, can be read as proxy battles between those who want to keep McConnell’s leadership and those who are looking elsewhere. And even though the establishment has won a series of contests, the ranks of the reformers are slowly swelling. Ben Sasse, the Republican nominee in Nebraska, openly feuded with McConnell during the campaign. (An olive branch has since been extended on both sides.) Activists see a couple of pickup opportunities in the weeks to come, particularly in Mississippi, where Tea Partier Chris McDaniel is set to face longtime incumbent Thad Cochran in a runoff, as the Senate Republicans campaign arm, the National Republican Senate Committee, runs a scorched earth campaign against the challenger.
McConnell, who has served as Senate minority leader since the GOP lost control of the upper chamber in 2006, was something of a punching bag on the campaign trail this year, with even establishment candidates in Georgia, Louisiana, and Oklahoma declining to say they supported him remaining as leader.
“We need new leadership, that is what we need,” Rob Maness, a Tea Party candidate for the Senate in Louisiana, told The Daily Beast. McConnell, Maness said, had failed to provide the cover for conservatives like Cruz during the government shutdown fight last year. “If we get enough constitutional conservatives in there like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and Rand Paul, the leadership will have to change. That is one of the reasons why I am running, to be reinforcements for those guys.”
Conservatives who want to see McConnell go realize that the hardest path will be if the GOP retakes the Senate and McConnell wins his tough battle in Kentucky with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. But they say a McConnell loss is a real possibility. That combined with the GOP taking the Senate will set forth a scramble between McConnell’s heir apparent, Texan John Cornyn, and any one of a couple of recent arrivals, including Lee, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, or Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson.
Then there is of course the possibility that Republicans fail to recapture the Senate this year, in which case the anti-McConnell caucus believes they will have more momentum for new Senate leadership.
“Oh, boy. If that happens, you will see a civil war politically,” said one top Tea Party strategist.
Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of FreedomWorks, the conservative outfit that backed McConnell’s opponent in the Kentucky primary, said in the current era, the old rules of climbing up the senatorial ladder matter less. Making nice with leadership, getting good committee assignments, and using that perch as a fundraising base is no longer necessary, as outside groups like FreedomWorks can now provide campaign reinforcements, he said.
“You look at the fights of the last year, we haven’t seen a tremendous amount of leadership,” he said. “The leadership was coming from the reform end of the caucus. You have this whole new cadre of folks. It is small, but it sets the tone and the direction.”
Knocking off McConnell, he added, “is definitely something people want to do.”
Back in 2012, House Speaker John Boehner was rumored to be the victim of an attempted coup by conservative members of his own caucus. That attempt was quickly quelled, and ousting a leader of the Senate, a body with its own revered traditions, will surely be even more difficult.
But conservatives say that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, especially with the 2016 election approaching and senators able to show their conservative bona fides by backing an alternative to the present leadership.
“Step 1 is we take the Senate back. Step 2 is to get somebody with strong conservative principles in as Senate majority leader,” said Matt Nye, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a grassroots GOP group that tries to steer the party in a more conservative direction. “Unfortunately, the upper echelons of the Republican Party are resistant to change, but that is what needs to happen.”