Why McConnell Is Feeling Smug About His Plan To ‘Crush’ Tea Partiers

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Republicans who have fallen on the “establishment” side of the so-called GOP Civil War are feeling pretty smug right now.

Over the past few days McConnell and his allies have suggested more and more that they’re winning the ongoing primary fights between outside group-backed conservative candidates and the incumbent Republicans they’re challenging. In an interview with The New York Times published on Sunday, McConnell said he and his allies would “crush them everywhere.”

Those comments came out the same weekend of the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, where Ben Carson, a darling of the far right, told the audience in his speech “once we get through the primary season if your person hasn’t won and you can call him whatever you want to call him — RINO…you can call ’em whatever you want, vote for them!”

That’s one of the many reasons McConnell and other establishment Republicans feel optimistic these days. On Monday a pro-McConnell super PAC released a new polling memo showing the top Senate Republican way ahead of Bevin, who himself has acknowledged that he doesn’t have the best chances of winning the Senate race.

A week earlier, the top two tea party candidates challenging Congressional candidates in Texas both bombed on election night. And in Mississippi, Democrats feel that state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s tea party challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) gives them enough of an opening for Democrat Travis Childers to play spoiler and possibly win the seat (if Cochran is defeated). Even some Cochran supporters feel this way too.

“I don’t think Childers would be in the race except for the Chris McDaniel effect. Thad Cochran can beat Childers,” a top Mississippi Republican who’s supporting Cochran told TPM. “It will be much harder for Chris McDaniel and would require Republicans to spend resources in Mississippi they could otherwise spend elsewhere during the general to retake the Senate.”

Milton Wolf speaks in Topeka, Kansas in February.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), McConnell and other establishment candidates and Republicans in leadership have had to spend a big chunk of time this cycle focusing on preventing candidates backed by conservative outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, The Madison Project, and other organizations. Only recently though have attacks against those candidates really begun to stick. In Kansas, for example, Roberts had a big lead over Wolf days before news broke that Wolf had joked about graphic x-rays he posted online — not exactly a flattering story for the primary challenger. That story was blasted out by the NRSC.

The candidates favored by anti-incumbent tea partiers are looking increasingly like long shots. In Louisiana, tea party favorite Rob Maness, who’s been endorsed by SCF and other outside groups, is lagging far behind the more establishment-oriented candidate Rep. Bill Cassidy in the Republican primary to face Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). In Oklahoma, the anti-establishment tea partiers establishment Republicans have been warring with didn’t even get their preferred candidate to run for outgoing Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) seat. In the North Carolina Senate race, Greg Brannon, the tea partier endorsed by FreedomWorks and Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), sent out a fundraising email saying there’s “no doubt” he’d be outspent by fellow Republican primary contender North Carolina House Speaker Tom Tillis, who polls suggest is far more likely to win the nomination and face Sen. Kay Hagan (D).

Now, McConnell seems to be moving toward his knockout blow. He recently released a new scathing ad attacking both the Senate Conservatives Fund and Bevin. At the same time though he’s making clear that he’s not against the entire tea party movement. On Monday McConnell said in a statement that his war isn’t with the tea party, it’s with 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,” McConnell said. “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.”