Writing a check on an account with an iffy balance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told The New York Times that he thinks the Republican establishment is "going to crush [our opponents] everywhere." It took zero-point-zero seconds for that quote to become precisely the sort of rallying point that Republican incumbents would probably rather their opponents not have.
The Tea Party-versus-establishment war has rarely been articulated as plainly as in McConnell's comments. Although it appears that McConnell was probably speaking within the fairly narrow frame of candidates challenging incumbent Republican senators. Last week, McConnell's second-in-command on the Hill, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, easily dispatched all comers in his bid for another term, perhaps encouraging McConnell's Emperor-style bravado. "I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country," McConnell continued, apparently referring to organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has been backing conservative Senate challengers.
McConnell's probably right. Incumbents (including himself) lead in most polls, and challengers like Milton Wolf in Kansas and Chris McDaniel in Mississippi have had some stumbles. But it didn't take long for the message to be extrapolated to the Tea Party at large.
Senator McConnell (R) said the following about whom: "We're going to crush them." 1) OFA 2) Occupy Wall Street 3) Code Pink 4) Tea Party— Noah Wehrman (@NoahWehrman) March 9, 2014
Former Alaskan Senate candidate Joe Miller tossed up a blog post titled, "McConnell Wants No Nominees From Tea Party: Establishment "Going to Crush Them Everywhere.'" The conservative site HotAir titled its post, "On notice: Mitch McConnell is ready to 'crush' the Tea Party." Erick Erickson at RedState suggests that those irritated by McConnell's comments donate to the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, and other organizations mentioned in the Times article. Oh, and Matt Bevin, the man challenging McConnell in Kentucky. "Crush or be crushed — Mitch McConnell just clarified this election."
Shortly after the government shutdown last October, business groups and the Republican establishment pledged to take do exactly what McConnell is predicting: snuff out insurgents in the primaries to both ensure general election victories and to stamp out the strain of conservatism that encouraged defaulting on the nation's debt. The National Republican Senate Committee declared that it would get involved in primaries, contrary to past practice. And the Chamber of Commerce pledged millions in Senate races.
Beyond that, though, the establishment's efforts have been tepid. Politico's Anna Palmer reports that business hasn't been doing much to weigh in on 2014 yet. "It isn’t backing many candidates early. And it hasn’t cowed conservative groups fueling challenges to incumbent senators," Palmer writes. "The result: Tea party groups are launching rebel campaigns nearly unchallenged by the big money of corporate America." Business isn't doing nothing, it's just "playing the way they always have — meeting with potential candidates, trying to persuade more business-centric candidates to run and cutting checks to incumbents facing primary challengers." Palmer highlights the challenge to Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who backed a rebellion against Speaker John Boehner within days of arriving on Capitol Hill and has been an outspoken critic of government surveillance. He's being challenged by a pro-business politician, who hasn't garnered much support.
2014 is still young, and a hard Tea Party push in Texas didn't yield much on primary day last week. But what made the Tea Party successful in 2010 and 2012 was the ability to energize voters when needed. McConnell's comments almost certainly won't swing any election. But it's the sort of spark that he'd be well advised to avoid lighting.
Update, 3:00 p.m.: McConnell has (unsurprisingly) walked back the statement to TruthRevolt. He only meant to ding the Senate Conservatives Fund.
I’ve always been and continue to be a big supporter of the Tea Party and the conservative change it’s bringing to Washington. One of the biggest obstacles to that change, however, is the Senate Conservatives Fund, a rogue political operation that has co-opted the Liberty movement for its own enrichment to the detriment of the conservative cause. This is a point that I have been making repeatedly and energetically over the past several months, because in my view this group has deceived a lot of good people. They claim to share our goals but undermine them at every turn. I think they should be stopped, and I don’t mind saying so.