No primary battle for McConnell could create room for deficit deal

Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will probably not face a credible primary challenger in 2014, giving the Republican leader more leeway to strike a deal on the deficit.

Conservative groups such as FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund do not expect a viable Republican candidate to emerge.

McConnell has shored up his right flank by forging an alliance with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is beloved by Tea Party activists. 

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A McConnell aide said Paul is the minority leader’s biggest surrogate in the state, helping him fend off any potential challenger hoping to win Tea Party backing.

Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, who previously worked for Paul, said, “Sen. Paul and Sen. McConnell have formed a very strong friendship and have realized the two of them can really deliver for Kentucky.”

He said they have been appearing regularly before Republican and Tea Party groups in the Bluegrass State “for quite some time.”

An aide to Paul confirmed the senator is supporting McConnell’s reelection.

“We’ve not heard of any challengers in the primary,” said the staffer.

Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks and a leader in the Tea Party movement, is a strong critic of the fiscal-cliff deal McConnell recently struck with Vice President Biden.

But it is doubtful that his group will back a challenger to defeat McConnell.

“If you want to successfully replace somebody, you have to find the right challenger,” said Kibbe. “One of the lessons we learned in 2012 is choosing the right champion is such an essential part of winning because you need a candidate that has the right skills and then you need the grassroots community that’s willing to push that candidate over the top. 

“I don’t get the sense that we can do that in Kentucky,” he said. 

This gives McConnell breathing room to cut a deal with President Obama in the 113th Congress to reform entitlement programs. 

Revamping Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the biggest drivers of the federal debt, has been one of McConnell’s highest priorities. But Democrats insist any legislation to curb the cost of those programs must include additional tax hikes. 

Sources close to McConnell say Democrats should not count on the GOP leader to strike a last-minute deal, as he did last month to extend the Bush tax rates, or in the summer of 2011, when he helped negotiate a strategy to raise the debt limit. 

McConnell says the eleventh-hour dealmaking has to stop. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” he said, “These last-minute deals are no way to run the government.

“We could go through the regular order. Congress could pass bills. They could have conferences between the House and Senate. The president could be engaged,” he said earlier this month.

Lawmakers and aides increasingly see the Senate as the best place to hatch such a deal, following the model of the New Year’s Eve tax deal.

McConnell’s ability to serve as an effective negotiator could have been hampered by the distraction of preparing for a bruising primary campaign. Instead, McConnell’s bigger worry will be the general election, in which Democrats will try to paint him as a champion of partisanship and obstruction. 

“He won’t get a serious challenger,” said a GOP strategist familiar with conservatives who might have backed a primary challenge against McConnell. “Probably McConnell’s biggest weakness is losing the general election. If I were in his shoes, that would be my bigger concern.”

Democrats see McConnell as a top target. They cite recent polls showing McConnell leading actress Ashley Judd by only 4 points in a hypothetical match-up. 

“Everybody knows that Mitch McConnell is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. He has become the symbol of Washington dysfunction and Republican partisanship,” said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

However, defeating McConnell, who has a $7 million campaign war chest, will not be easy — especially in a state where Obama got less than 38 percent of the vote last year.

If McConnell helped negotiate a comprehensive agreement to put the country on a sustainable fiscal path, that could blow a hole in the Democrats’ argument that he is the dark prince of obstructionism. 

McConnell kept a relatively low profile throughout the 112th Congress, letting Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) take the lead in budget battles with Obama. As a result, voters across the country are more familiar with Boehner than McConnell, say GOP strategists. 

He raised his profile among conservative activists — and not in a positive way — after he brokered the deal with Biden. 

ForAmerica, a conservative group headed by Brent Bozell, launched an ad campaign on right-leaning websites in Kentucky, targeting the GOP leader. 

The ad, titled “Whose Side Are You On,” asks conservatives to sign a petition letting Republican lawmakers know they will be held accountable for votes to further increase taxes.

While Bozell said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if McConnell faced a primary challenge, he did not know of a likely opponent. 

“When Rand Paul’s already endorsed McConnell, where would the primary challenge come from and how would you fund it?” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based political strategist who worked on McConnell’s 2002 and 2008 campaigns.