WASHINGTON – As conservative activist groups stirred up trouble for establishment Republican Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, party leaders in Washington first tried to ignore the insurgents, then tried to reason with them, and ultimately left it to primary voters to settle the matter.
But after several of those conservatives – in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware in 2010 and in Indiana and Missouri in 2012 – managed to win their primaries but lose in the general election, party leaders felt stung by what they saw as avoidable defeats.
This election season, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are taking a much harder line as they sense the majority within reach. Top congressional Republicans and their allies are challenging the advocacy groups head on in an aggressive effort to undermine their credibility. The goal is to deny them any Senate primary victories, cut into their fundraising and diminish them as a future force in Republican politics.
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said in an interview, referring to the network of activist organizations working against him and two Republican incumbents in Kansas and Mississippi while engaging in a handful of other contests. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
Elevating the nasty intramural brawl to a new level, McConnell on Friday began airing a radio ad in Kentucky that attacked both Matt Bevin, the businessman challenging him in the Republican primary, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the groups trying to oust McConnell and a political action committee that has been a particular thorn in his side.
McConnell’s ad, his first singling out the Senate Conservatives Fund, raises a criticism that Speaker John A. Boehner and other Republicans have leveled at the activists – that they are fundraising and business enterprises more than political operations. The ad refers to unnamed news media reports that assert that the PAC “solicits money under the guise of advocating for conservative principles but then spends it on a $1.4 million luxury townhouse with a wine cellar and hot tub in Washington, D.C.”
Matt Hoskins, the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, dismissed the criticism as exaggerated, saying the organization simply rents a Capitol Hill townhouse rather than expensive downtown office space. He interpreted the new attack from one of the most powerful Republicans in the country as a sure sign that his group’s campaign against McConnell was gaining traction.
“Mitch McConnell is clearly in trouble in this primary or he wouldn’t be attacking Matt Bevin and declaring war on conservatives,” said Hoskins, a California-based operative and former aide to Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who founded the group while serving in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell isn’t upset because SCF rents a townhouse for office space; he’s upset because we’re spending money on radio and TV ads that expose his record of voting for bailouts, more debt, higher taxes and Obamacare funding.”
The escalating tension between party leaders and tea party-aligned activists in groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and FreedomWorks arises from the activists’ view that some top elected Republicans are major obstacles to enacting conservative policies and need to be replaced.
The conservative activists say they are dedicated to deposing the lawmakers at the risk of losing seats. Their fervor has only grown after some played a role in the elections of Republican Senate mavericks like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas over the opposition of party establishment leaders such as McConnell.
“When you look at the direction Washington, D.C., as a whole is going, when you look at the state of the Republican Party and its decided lack of will to fight, you have to begin looking at the leadership itself,” said Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project.
The chairman is his father, Jim Ryun, the former Republican congressman and track star from Kansas. “Mitch McConnell is, to me, the essence of the problem in D.C.”