WASHINGTON — Usually a picture of self-assured calm and control, Mitch McConnell is having a rough week.
When the Senate worked its way out of a nasty fight over presidential nominations and the filibuster, the credit went not to the Senate Republican leader but to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McConnells clout with his own caucus was questioned. It seemed uncharacteristic for the Kentucky Republican, long regarded as a master of the Senates byzantine rhythms.
McConnells penchant for deftly navigating political landmines is in for a lengthy test. Hes an insiders insider, but he cant appear to be so back home. Hes been known for keeping his raucous caucus in line, but there have been cracks. And while he has a solid conservative voting record, its not conservative enough for the increasingly prominent groups that are influencing Republican voters.
McConnell is the Democrats top incumbent target in the 2014 Senate elections. His race is expected to be the nations most expensive. I think its going to be easy to make this a close race, but its going to take a lot to beat him, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
McConnells camp disputes any notion that the weeks turmoil exposed fresh political cracks.
I dont know that the week was so rough, said Don Stewart, McConnells deputy chief of staff. The people who were going to get confirmed got confirmed.
Any notion that McConnells losing control of Republican senators is misguided, Stewart said: Nobody controls the caucus, but he has the leadership position. Hes not a dictator.
McConnell loyalists tout a big electoral advantage: That conservative voting record in a state that hasnt elected a Democrat to the Senate in 21 years, where President Barack Obama got 37.8 percent of the 2012 vote.
Theyre also buoyed by McConnells history of winning tough races. Only once, in 2002, did McConnell get more than 55 percent. He also can boast that if elected, he could very well be the Senate majority leader. Republicans will probably need a net gain of six seats next year to win control of the chamber, and polls suggest thats within their reach.
Democrats see strong potential for likely nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentuckys secretary of state. Because she has no Washington record, she can paint McConnell as a creature of the Capitol whos forgotten the plain folks of the Bluegrass State.
The race is going to be whether McConnell can make this a race against Obama or Alison can make this a race against McConnell, said former Kentucky Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a Democrat.
This weeks Senate chaos gives Democrats attractive material. Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced a new campaign about real consequences Kentuckians suffer at the hands of Mitch McConnell. Thursday, the headline on its press release was McConnell Losing Influence.
Their target is the turmoil over the nuclear option, a Democratic-driven effort to change Senate rules to make it easier for non-judicial nominees to win confirmation with 51 votes. Sixty is now needed to curtail debate.
McConnell wanted an accord months ago, and in June he told the White House to withdraw two controversial National Labor Relations Board nominees, replace them with two others, and the process would move forward. He also wanted assurance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., not to invoke the nuclear option for the rest of this Congress, which runs until January 2015.
Reid said no. So McCain and other Republicans, who were willing to accept votes on controversial nominees without imposing a long-term 51-vote threshold, negotiated.
The White House would replace the two labor nominees, as McConnell had suggested, and Reid would drop the nuclear option for five other nominees with votes pending.
At Reids request, McConnell met with the Nevada Democrat just minutes before Reid and McCain went on the Senate floor Tuesday to announce their agreement (Reid wanted to tell McConnell about the two labor nominees). McCain became the public face of compromise. Democrats were lavish in their praise, suggesting that the maverick Republican had saved the Senate.
Republicans stood behind McConnell.
Sometimes when you look at the sensibilities of where people are and whats going on back in their states and all those kind of things, different people need to play roles, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Privately, there was grumbling. Senators said McConnell told them he could have gotten a better deal, even as he told reporters he was pleased. Stewart said thats not unusual. The two arent mutually exclusive, he said.
Such maneuvers are likely to further tarnish McConnell with diehard conservatives, a problem thats been building for months. During last months immigration debate, a bipartisan Gang of Eight crafted legislation that won Senate approval, as 14 Republicans backed a path to citizenship for the nations estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Some conservatives were furious at the Gang, and that McConnell didnt use procedural devices to stall or dilute the bill, even though his caucus was solidly behind moving forward and won the ability to offer amendments. But to the right, the debate was another example of why conservatives need to be wary.
Their ire was stirred in January, when Congress and Obama agreed to raise taxes as part of a budget deal. ForAmerica, a conservative group, began running an ad picturing McConnell with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, asking Whose Side Are You On? Talk show host Glenn Beck lumped McConnell with McCain and other mainstream Republicans, saying hed written those guys off. The conservative Club for Growth rated McConnells votes 24th among the 47 Republicans, saying he voted right 74 percent of the time last year. His lifetime rating is 84 percent.
So far, McConnell doesnt appear to have a serious conservative challenge, and Republicans dismiss the notion conservatives will stay home in November 2014. McConnell did vote no on the immigration bill, he ranks ninth on this years Heritage Action conservative scorecard, and he regularly addresses the Senate on the evils of the 2010 health care law.
Kentucky Republicans are counting on voters seeing the bigger picture. McConnells a known, and hes been voting conservative for years, said Louisville-based Republican consultant Ted Jackson. That is Kentucky.
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