That Dam Deal

Mitch McConnell Is Now Tea Party Enemy No. 1

The Senate minority leader’s deal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling (plus a couple of dams for Kentucky) has his right flank howling. By Patricia Murphy.

Tea Party anger at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raged from a simmer to a rolling boil Thursday as details emerged about his role to strike a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the government shutdown and temporarily raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

McConnell had been noticeably absent from previous Senate fights this year as he geared up for a Tea Party challenge from Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin in 2014, followed by a likely general-election battle against the state’s well-funded Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes. But McConnell stepped into the fray last week to broker an agreement with Democrats to reopen the government as the Republican Party sank to its lowest approval ratings in decades and House Republicans dissolved into disarray over the best way to proceed.

McConnell told Politico on Thursday that his goal in forging the compromise was to “to punt the ball to a better place on the field without raising taxes or busting the [spending] caps.” But the senator’s decision to take the lead in finding a resolution to the standoff only left Tea Party activists further enraged at the man they had already targeted as Enemy No. 1 in the 2014 midterm elections.

Dustin Stockman, cofounder of the Tea Party-aligned Western Representation PAC, fired off a fundraising email Thursday morning that he titled “A Parliament of Traitors and Whores.” Stockman pointed to McConnell specifically and accused him of taking a kickback in the form of a multibillion-dollar authorization for a dam system on the Ohio River in Kentucky that was included in the bill, a charge that the senator’s office vehemently denied. “The Republican establishment just sold us out,” Stockman wrote, in the profanity-laced email. “This is war.”

In Kentucky, Tea Party activists said McConnell’s role in negotiating the deal with Democratic leaders was disappointing, but not surprising. “He’s catching an awful lot of flak at home for it today, which he deserves,” said Scott Hofstra of the United Kentucky Tea Party, which is supporting Bevin. “It’s just the kind of corruption and backroom deal that we expected of him.”

Even though Hofstra lives in Kentucky, he had no praise for the authorization for the state’s dam project: “That money has to come from somewhere and it’s coming from other people’s taxes.” Hofstra added that the episode has only added fuel to Tea Partiers looking to unseat the senator. “It’s created a furor in the state,” he said.

Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida-based National Liberty Federation, called the final debt-limit agreement “a typical Washington backroom deal” and compared McConnell and the Kentucky dam project to Judas Iscariot and the 30 pieces of silver the Bible says he took to betray Jesus Christ. “I think McConnell stabbed the Republicans in the back,” Wilkinson said. “The very little spine that they had, he sabotaged.”

Wilkinson praised Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, as well as Marco Rubio, for voting against the final deal. “They all stood firm and did what we were hoping for,” he said, adding that McConnell’s role in the final deal only energized Tea Partiers for the 2014 cycle. “McConnell has given us a shot in the arm with his behavior. “

Though the GOP has largely taken the blame for the shutdown in recent polls, Ben Cunningham, co-founder of the Nashville Tea Party, described activists at a FreedomWorks meeting in Atlanta last weekend as “defiant, energized, and motivated.” His group is focused on unseating longtime Sen. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee’s Republican primary, but Cunningham added that the GOP leadership, especially Sen. McConnell, needs to go, too.

And instead of labeling the government-shutdown fiasco as a defeat for the conservative movement, Cunningham called it a motivation. “It just increased our resolve to move ahead,” he said. “Because it’s clear that nothing is going to change in Washington until the people we send to Washington change.”

Bluegrass Tea Partiers will need major reinforcements to even have a hope of defeating the veteran senator. An August poll showed McConnell leading Bevin by an eye-popping 47 points, a gap even Sarah Palin would have a hard time closing.

But that didn’t stop Palin from going to her Facebook page Wednesday night as the final vote cleared the House. “Rest well tonight,” she wrote. “For soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let’s start with Kentucky… from sea to shining sea we will not give up. We’ve only just begun to fight.”