The Richmond Register

January 19, 2013

Can anyone challenge McConnell in 2014?

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — Has Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator and the Republican minority leader, concluded he faces little or no danger of a primary challenge in 2014?

A lot of Kentucky’s political junkies believe McConnell, historically ready to cut a deal and who in his 2008 campaign touted his ability to bring federal dollars back to Kentucky, adopted an intransigent tone with President Barack Obama and hawkish positions on issues like the debt ceiling because he feared a tea party challenge in his 2014 re-election bid.

It’s true that many tea party activists in Kentucky aren’t at all happy with McConnell’s role in the deal with Vice President Joe Biden to raise taxes on the wealthy without securing corresponding cuts in spending.

But their frustration doesn’t end there. They’ll say how disappointed they are in the deal and McConnell’s part in it but then sigh with resignation and concede there is no one who can take him on in a primary.

They know Congressman Thomas Massie, R-4th District, the libertarian disciple of Ron and Rand Paul, won’t likely do it.

Massie said this week in a Politico article he has no plans to challenge McConnell.

They know McConnell and Rand Paul have forged an alliance and an apparent friendship.

Paul has publicly said he knows of no one who can or will challenge McConnell.

Jesse Benton worked for the Pauls and now is McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager.

“Sen. Paul and Sen. McConnell have formed a very strong friendship and have realized the two of them can really deliver for Kentucky,” Benton told The Hill this week.

He might have added they also realize how much they need each other.

If Paul is serious about national aspirations, he needs McConnell’s help with establishment party figures, fundraising and support.

McConnell needs Paul’s support to gain some credibility with Paul followers or at least dampen their willingness to challenge him in a primary.

Here’s the bottom line.

It’s not that Kentucky tea party Republicans wouldn’t like to take on McConnell. Their problem is they have no candidate who can do it.

Paul isn’t available and Massie and Phil Moffett aren’t interested.

McConnell has $7 million in the bank and has the imprimatur of Benton as his campaign manager and Paul’s open support.

Plus, he has the reputation as the “wood-chipper,” the label used by his former Chief of Staff Billy Piper to describe his take-no-prisoners campaign style. (The reference was to the grotesque disposal of a body at the conclusion of the movie "Fargo.")

If McConnell has in fact decided he hasn’t much to fear from his right, it frees him in two important ways.

He can help craft a national compromise on major fiscal and budget issues.

With his right flank secure, McConnell has more room to maneuver in negotiations with Obama on the debt limit and spending.

If he can do that, avoiding national default or an economic crisis while securing some concessions on spending, especially on entitlements, he can claim victory for Republicans while undercutting Democrats’ attacks that he is an obstructionist, more concerned with his own political interests than the welfare of the nation.

He can tell Republicans back home he got the best deal available and forced Obama into spending cuts.

He can tell independents and conservative Democrats he acted as a statesman and broke through Washington dysfunction and gridlock and perhaps avoided financial catastrophe.

The role McConnell plays in the looming debt limit and budget fights might just tell us whether he worries more about the general election or a potential primary challenge.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.