If you think the far-right political machine is more bark than bite, represents only a sliver of even GOP primary voters, is largely a money-making opposition and is harmful to GOP electoral chances, then you aren't surprised that the No. 1 target of this crowd, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is leading his tea-party challenger Matt Bevin 53 percent to 31 percent in a recent poll. Republicans backing McConnell suspect the lead may be even greater, although they are wary of setting expectations too high.
One GOP insider observes, “At that point it becomes plain that SCF [Senate Conservatives Fund] is not out for winning, but out for making noise and rabble-rousing to make money and line pockets. If they were really out to win, this would not be their big race.”
Having declared defeating McConnell their top priority, the SCF, Madison Project and Heritage Action — as well as far-right blogs screeching that McConnell is a Republican in name only — have no choice but to make a go of it.
If they lose big, media, candidates and donors might finally come to realize they are a paper tiger.
SCF boasts that it has spent more than $2 million on five Senate candidates. Of this it donated $450,383 directly to Bevin and spent $535,611 in independent expenditures for a total of $985,994. The Madison Project — another anti-McConnell, anti-mainstream Republican outfit — just announced it is opening five get-out-the-vote offices in Kentucky to help Bevin. Whatever that is costing, you wonder whom Madison Project is helping to try to keep above water — Bevin or itself.
We don't know whether money is coming primarily from a few donors or whether ordinary conservatives are sending their hard-earned cash. (An “average” donation tells you very little if you have just a few mega-donors and $5 from everyone else.) Sooner or later, however, people will ask whether their money is well spent and what it is accomplishing. In the case of Kentucky, all this cash is doing is forcing McConnell to spend money and time in advance of a tough general election campaign.
A while back I speculated that few if any of the GOP Senate challengers would win their primaries against Republican incumbents. With Liz Cheney having dropped her run in Wyoming and Bevin far behind, that seems to be precisely what is happening. These tea-party challengers have an uphill climb, not only because the candidates by and large are unknowns but also because the product they are selling — a shutdown, partisan gridlock and fiscal austerity — doesn't have enough sell within the GOP base. (And if that is the case, imagine how unpopular their agenda would be to all the other voters.) Governance is in; dysfunction is out.
If all these candidates flop, it will continue the trend in the GOP toward deal-making, conservative policy innovation and maybe even a GOP Senate majority. Candidates pondering a presidential run in 2016 should also take note. Voters may not be so keen on fire and brimstone at the expense of electability and reform.