Commentary Magazine


Topic: MoveOn

In Kentucky, Do the Interests of MoveOn and the Tea Party Really “Align”?

The sometimes contradictory nature of the grassroots conservative criticism of GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparent a few weeks ago when one conservative group began to advertise against McConnell from the right. It turned out this same group, which rates members of Congress on their dedication to conservative principles and freedom, gives McConnell a 95 percent rating.

That doesn’t mean the group isn’t free to push McConnell on the other 5 percent, or that such groups shouldn’t prioritize high-profile and symbolic fights over more mundane votes in the Senate. Indeed, there is logic to that approach. But it does show why there hasn’t been, and doesn’t appear to be, any real enthusiasm for a primary challenge to the veteran Kentucky senator, whose term is up in 2014. And a Politico story today reports on the possible Tea Party involvement in what sounds like a truly terrible idea:

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The sometimes contradictory nature of the grassroots conservative criticism of GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparent a few weeks ago when one conservative group began to advertise against McConnell from the right. It turned out this same group, which rates members of Congress on their dedication to conservative principles and freedom, gives McConnell a 95 percent rating.

That doesn’t mean the group isn’t free to push McConnell on the other 5 percent, or that such groups shouldn’t prioritize high-profile and symbolic fights over more mundane votes in the Senate. Indeed, there is logic to that approach. But it does show why there hasn’t been, and doesn’t appear to be, any real enthusiasm for a primary challenge to the veteran Kentucky senator, whose term is up in 2014. And a Politico story today reports on the possible Tea Party involvement in what sounds like a truly terrible idea:

Big Democratic donors, local liberal activists and a left-leaning super PAC in Kentucky are telling tea partiers that they are poised to throw financial and organizational support behind a right-wing candidate should one try to defeat the powerful GOP leader in a 2014 primary fight.

The idea: Soften up McConnell and make him vulnerable in a general election in Kentucky, where Democrats still maintain a voter registration advantage. Or better yet, in their eyes: Watch Kentucky GOP primary voters nominate the 2014 version of Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, weak candidates who may actually lose.

“We are doing a lot of reaching out to some of the tea party folks across the state,” said Keith Rouda, a field organizer with the liberal group MoveOn and the Democratic super PAC, Progress Kentucky. “What we’re finding — at least in this stage of the race — we’re finding that our interests align. It’s unusual.”

Local Tea Party leaders are not rejecting the idea of joining forces with MoveOn to help Democrats pick the Republican general-election candidate for the seat:

Sarah Durand, president of the Louisville Tea Party, said Democratic donors and activists have told her that they’d be willing to spend seven figures in a GOP primary to help a candidate willing to challenge McConnell. Durand said the challenge for tea party groups is to recruit a candidate who wouldn’t hand the seat to the Democrats, even though, she said, tea party leaders across the state are not satisfied with McConnell’s three-decade tenure in Washington.

Red flags abound. We can start with the obvious differences between McConnell’s seat and the successful tactic Democrats employed to save Claire McCaskill by helping to elevate a Republican opponent who would go on to say something so offensive it would effectively lose two Senate seats in one year for the party. In the latter case, it was an open primary among conservatives to win the chance to challenge an unpopular incumbent Democrat. There was no incumbent Republican to knock off to win the nomination. McConnell, in contrast, is a five-term senator with good fundraising numbers; as of the September filing, he has almost $6.8 million in cash on-hand. And with a 96 percent 2010 ACU rating and an 85 percent 2011 rating he should garner plenty of support among Republicans.

Durand, the Louisville Tea Party president, was plainly apprehensive about the general-election ramifications of primarying McConnell. She should be. As the Politico story notes, Kentucky Democrats have a party registration advantage, so although the electorate is a generally conservative one, it’s not unthinkable for a Democrat to compete. McConnell’s approval ratings are above water, as are those of fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who supports McConnell’s re-election. On that note, McConnell has broadened his Tea Party support, and brought more conservative members of the party’s congressional delegation under his wing. Between conservative groups and conservative politicians in the state, McConnell has made it exceedingly difficult for his would-be opponents to build an effective electoral coalition to his right.

Kentucky Republicans would also be well advised to take a glance at their putative allies in this fight. Normally, Tea Party groups grumble about the Democrats and liberal Republicans getting to choose GOP candidates, as they believe was the case with John McCain’s nomination in 2008 with some help from open primaries and party apostates like Charlie Crist. Democratic groups like MoveOn are quite publicly trying to do the very same thing here, and simply because they believe this will make it easier to take another seat from the GOP. As Politico reports, one of the leaders of a super-PAC looking to back a primary challenge to McConnell worked for Rand Paul’s Democratic opponent in 2010.

And it should go without saying that MoveOn and other liberal political groups are not exactly champing at the bit to help strong conservative candidates–they want weak conservative candidates. Do groups that give McConnell a 95 percent rating want to roll the dice on candidates that liberal big-money groups identify as the next Todd Akin? And do they really want liberal groups picking both the Democratic and Republican candidates in the next Kentucky Senate election, against the wishes of the Tea Party senator, Rand Paul? It may be easier to sign onto it when it’s other people’s money–in this case, leftist donors’ and activists’ money–but here that seems to be an argument in favor of resisting the temptation.

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