Candidates won’t commit to McConnell

Greg Nash

A slew of Republican candidates running for the upper chamber won’t say whether they would back Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) if he bids for another term as GOP leader.

While Tea Party candidates often run against GOP leaders in Washington during primary contests, establishment candidates this year are leery of expressing allegiance to McConnell too.

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Republican strategists say it’s a sign of the growing divide between party leaders and conservative voters, who have a history of roiling GOP primaries.

Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.), who is running against two Republican rivals to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), declined to endorse McConnell recently, even though he has accepted $10,000 from Bluegrass Committee, McConnell’s leadership PAC.

Asked last month whom he would support for GOP leader in the next Congress, Cassidy said, “I don’t know who’s running” before mentioning Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) as someone who has helped his campaign.

Karen Handel, a Senate candidate who hails from the party establishment as a former Georgia secretary of State but now draws support from Tea Party conservatives as well, indicated she would not support McConnell for leader if she were elected.

Pressed by The Hill this month whether she would back McConnell, Handel said Republicans “need new leadership” and that the minority leader’s voters “can make a determination for him.”

McConnell faces both a primary and a general election challenge this year.

Handel’s rival in the Georgia Senate primary race, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who has served more than 20 years in Congress, declined Monday to commit to voting for McConnell. 

“Jack Kingston is focused on communicating his record and his vision to the people of Georgia so we can elect a proven, tested conservative to turn back [Democratic Leader] Harry Reid’s liberal agenda,” Chris Crawford, Kingston’s spokesman, told The Hill when asked whether his boss supports McConnell serving another term as leader.

The three Republicans running to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R) in Oklahoma have each declined to endorse McConnell’s future as leader.

Rep. James Lankford, a conservative with strong ties to the party establishment as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said he did not know who would be running for Senate GOP leader after the election.

The race’s front-runner, state Rep. T.W. Shannon, has publicly criticized McConnell.

The third-place candidate, state Sen. Randy Brogdon, who attracted only 7 percent support in a recent poll, launched his campaign by calling on McConnell to resign immediately, blaming him for “growing the scope of government.”

In Nebraska, GOP candidate Ben Sasse, who has ties to the party establishment as a former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services during George W. Bush’s administration, has also declined to endorse McConnell.

McConnell and Sasse had a tense meeting after Sasse posted a video on YouTube calling on the Senate leader “to show some actual leadership.”

In Iowa, Sam Clovis, a former Air Force colonel running for Senate, and his rival, Matt Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney, have pointedly declined to embrace McConnell.

“I think we need a change in leadership in the United States Senate,” Clovis told a GOP forum last year, according to the Sioux City Journal.

Whitaker said if McConnell were leader of the Senate, “I’m not sure we would have the same opportunities to advance a conservative agenda including repealing ObamaCare.”

“In this toxic environment, they would not want to take any step that would make them less favorable to the Tea Party and others who are far right of center,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide. “If you look back four or six or eight years ago, you would not have seen this level of distancing on the part of Republican primary candidates, but it just shows how much these candidates are under pressure.”

Even so, Ullyot said there’s little chance McConnell will lose a leadership race after the election, even if Republicans fall short of capturing the Senate majority.

“What he’s known for and what he’s appreciated for within the caucus is no one is a better vote counter on either side of the aisle,” he said.

But Brent Bozell, the chairman of conservative group ForAmerica and an outspoken critic of McConnell, said the consequences for McConnell would be “enormous” if Republicans fail to win a Senate majority. 

With Congress’s approval rating hovering around 10 percent, Senate Democrats have also scrambled to distance themselves from Reid (Nev.).

On the other side of the Capitol, House Republican candidates are also distancing themselves from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

David Young, who is running for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, said in February he would not automatically vote for Boehner. 

“It depends on who wants to be the leader,” he said.

State Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a candidate in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, said she “wasn’t a huge fan” of Boehner. Igor Birman, a Republican candidate in California’s 7th District said he is “very skeptical about the merits of John Boehner remaining as speaker of the House.”

McConnell’s allies argue the phenomenon of Republican candidates refusing to endorse McConnell as leader in the midst of campaign season is nothing new.

In 2012, Richard Mourdock, shortly after winning the Senate Republican primary in Indiana thanks to strong Tea Party support, said he was undecided about voting for McConnell.

Sarah Steelman, the state treasurer who ran for Senate in Missouri in 2012, said conservatives needed to “shake up the Republicans” and added that she could “possibly” support a change in the Senate Republican leadership.

What’s different in 2014, however, is that it’s not just the most conservative Republicans who are declining to commit to supporting McConnell.

“Mitch McConnell has become radioactive, it sounds like,” said Al Cross, a political commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky. “Nobody wants to alienate the Tea Party vote in primaries that might have a low turnout.

“Nobody wants to have somebody, an outside or an opponent, run an ad pairing you up with Mitch McConnell, whose approval rating is dismal,” he said. “He is emblematic of Washington.”