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What Does the Tea Party Want?

Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a little fun at the expense of his Republican counterpart when he joked that Mitch McConnell had “tried to make love to the Tea Party but they didn’t like it.” The vulgar reference was to the fact that it appears as if the minority leader will be facing a primary challenge from an opponent claiming to represent the interests of Tea Party conservatives anxious to knock off one of the leading members of the Washington establishment. Politico reported on Friday that Matt Bevin, a Louisville investment analyst, had begun reserving airtime for television ads in anticipation of launching an effort to unseat McConnell. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Bevin will announce his candidacy tomorrow. This means that after working hard to shore up ties with conservatives in his home state—a process that included making nice with Senate colleague Rand Paul—McConnell will still find himself in a fight to retain the GOP nomination against a candidate who is presumably rich enough to self-fund his campaign.

Despite his cordial relationship with the minority leader, Paul is not seeking to discourage the Bevin challenge, merely saying that “it’s a free country” even as he predicts a McConnell victory. While not exactly neutral—Paul has endorsed McConnell’s reelection—that ambivalence will serve Bevin’s interests since the conceit of his candidacy is that he, rather than McConnell, truly represents the beliefs of the GOP’s activist base that adores the libertarian icon. The fact that Bevin’s campaign spokeswoman is a former president of the Louisville Tea Party lends some credence to that notion.

While, as Paul says, McConnell is likely to beat Bevin, the question for Tea Partiers in Kentucky isn’t so much about the challenger’s qualifications or even the popularity of the incumbent. It’s something much more fundamental: What exactly do they want? While Tea Party conservatives had some rationale to challenge other Republican incumbents, such as Indiana’s Richard Lugar, in recent election cycles, the choice here isn’t between a moderate and a conservative but between two conservatives. After leading the fight against the stimulus, ObamaCare and becoming the major obstacle to virtually every other item on the president’s agenda, it’s fair to ask what Tea Partiers can ask McConnell to do that he hasn’t already tried to accomplish?

Nobody, not even the head of a party caucus, is entitled to a Senate seat by divine right. As is the case in Wyoming, where Liz Cheney is challenging Mike Enzi, if a younger, better Republican comes along there is no reason why voters shouldn’t have the opportunity to choose between them and the incumbent. But if Bevin is going to be embraced by Tea Partiers in the manner of other insurgents around the nation, they will be hard pressed to make a case that the conservative cause will be better served by McConnell’s defeat than by his reelection.

Some Tea Partiers won’t forgive McConnell for voting for the TARP bailout in 2008 or for going along with the fiscal cliff deal at the start of the year. Some just instinctively distrust any incumbent or anyone who is part of Washington’s power elite no matter what their positions. But if Tea Partiers or other advocacy groups, such as the Club for Growth or those groups associated with current Heritage Foundation chief and former Senator Jim DeMint, were to embrace Bevin, a better explanation is in order.

Not everyone in Washington or back home in Kentucky may love McConnell, but it’s difficult to argue that he hasn’t been Barack Obama’s chief antagonist over the past few years. While House Speaker John Boehner is the highest ranking Republican and a clear foe of the White House, McConnell’s guerrilla warfare against the presidential agenda in the Democrat-controlled Senate has set the tone for the partisan divide in Congress. Though he has been accused of pandering to the Tea Party in order to avoid the challenge that Bevin is providing, McConnell is still public enemy No. 1 for Democrats. That’s exactly why Reid and the rest of the D.C. liberal establishment are thrilled about McConnell having to face a well-funded challenger. Simply put, there is no current issue, even those on which conservatives disagree like immigration reform, in which McConnell cannot be counted on as a leading force for the right.

Just as important, and in a dramatic distinction to the case in Wyoming, Democrats do stand to benefit if McConnell is forced to spend heavily in order to fend off Bevin. Expected Democratic candidate Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes is no pushover and will have the full backing of her national party next year. Kentucky may be deep red in presidential elections, but Democrats remain competitive in state and local races there. If Tea Partiers create a genuine schism on behalf of Bevin, it is far from inconceivable that Grimes could take advantage of it and steal a seat from the GOP in a year when they are expected to gain ground in the Senate.

All this is not to say that Bevin doesn’t have the right to run or to make a case for himself if there is one. But what it does mean is that he should not do so with the imprimatur of national conservatives who should understand the consequences of torpedoing a genuine conservative leader merely for spite or to prove they can do it. 

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