McConnell Is Most Powerful Republican
By Martin Kady II , Politico.com
posted: 41 MINUTES AGOcomments: 0PrintShareText SizeAAAWith his party in tatters, Mitch McConnell is now the most powerful Republican in the country – the lone GOP senator who can stand in the way of an unfettered liberal agenda in Washington, and a key go-to man to rehabilitate his party.
McConnell, a soft spoken Washington insider from Kentucky with a canny understanding of Senate tactics, is an unlikely pick to be the GOP’s Stonewall Jackson. Yet by virtue of surviving a tight re-election for a fifth term and having no real challenger to his position as Senate minority leader, McConnell is positioned to be both the ultimate dealmaker and the Republican firewall against a leftward tilt in American government.
McConnell's first task will be to figure out how to sooth a decimated Republican Senate caucus divided between conservative ideologues who want to stand athwart history and block every Democratic initiative, and a group of moderates who may want to cut deals to ensure their own political survival.
On the night of Barack Obama's historic victory, McConnell was playing the part of gracious dealmaker. For now.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, McConnell would only say "the time to legislate will come," and he asserted that his party’s priorities would be energy independence, lower spending and strong national security.
Yet McConnell is already being challenged from the right. Moments after Obama was declared the victor, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a firey conservative, declared that "Our party must start today to admit our mistakes, fight for our convictions, and encourage new conservatives to run for office."
But while the conservative caucus remains ready to fight, McConnell will also have to figure out how to keep moderates like Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from making the sort of deals that would give Democrats filibuster-resistant majorities on a wide range of economic and social policies.
Over the past two years, McConnell has been more prone to lead filibusters, which require the support of 41 senators, against Democratic initiatives on energy, economic policy and the Iraq war, knowing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had virtually no margin for error.
That’s why Reid and other Democratic leaders poured so much money and energy into trying to beat McConnell. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $6 million in the last three weeks of the campaign to try to knock off McConnell. In a brief interview with Politico on election night, Reid said that Republicans "have nothing to obstruct with. I am not worried about obstruction."
Yet Reid desperately wanted McConnell out of the way.
"His victory is a strategic defeat for Democrats," said Julian Zelizer, a political scientist and congressional expert at Princeton University. "He has proven to be a very good opposition leader, able to maintain discipline in the party and block Democratic initiatives. He will have tougher time this time around, assuming it will be harder to maintain a filibuster."
Even though he has a consistently conservative voting record, McConnell is not known as a firebrand willing to go to the mat for conservative social causes. He is more of a classic fiscal and national security conservative, voting against Democratic budgets over the past two years while leading the filibuster against every Democratic effort to force troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Yet GOP aides interviewed by Politico on election night remain skeptical of McConnell, complaining that he did not stand with them on the economic stimulus and last year's immigration bill.
"If McConnell returns as leader, he will have to make dramatic changes in his muted, Washington-insider leadership style," said one GOP Senate aide. "For the last two years, he has worked more closely with Reid than conservatives, but he will need them now if he wants to fight . . . President Obama and huge Democrat majorities. Republicans felt betrayed by his 'bipartisanship' on the bailout and amnesty, and were appalled that he ran a campaign solely on pork and power."
If McConnell takes on the role as dealmaker, he may begin to see some serious challenges from conservatives like Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Republican whip, and back benchers like DeMint and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
"Fewer Republicans will be comfortable trusting McConnell to lead the effort to rebrand the Republican party and hold the line against a liberal onslaught," said another Senate GOP aide. "Plus, if the Democrats achieve a de facto filibuster proof margin his role in keeping Republicans together will be far less relevant. In that scenario, though, leaders like Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint will play a much more prominent role in the party."
Reid said he hopes that McConnell will pay more attention to legislating and less to rebuilding the conservative movement.
"This is a mandate to get along, to get something done in a bipartisan way," Reid said. "This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology."
McConnell and his top aides seemed relieve simply to have survived a tough re-election, and weren’t ready to speculate on the problems he faces when he retakes the reins of the Republican Senate conference.
"I think it's going to be tough," James Bostic, an aide to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). "It will force people to look themselves in the mirror about where the party is going and what they stand for."