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Sen. McConnell lures stars from Tea Party during Afghanistan trip

Sen. McConnell lures stars from Tea Party during Afghanistan trip

Conservatives believe Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat would MLK say about Trump and the Republican Party? Biden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party MORE (Ky.) used a weekend trip to woo star GOP freshmen away from the Tea Party.

McConnell took Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFlorida Republicans close ranks with Trump after Capitol siege Confirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators call for commission to investigate Capitol attack Wisconsin Democrats make ad buy calling on Johnson to resign Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress MORE (R-Wis.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBottom line Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 Bottom line MORE (R-N.H.) on a high-powered weekend trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan that is being seen as a ploy by the leader to secure allies for forthcoming legislative battles.

The visit gave the freshmen firsthand access to world leaders and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as plenty of quality time with their party leader in the Senate.

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The list of invitees immediately raised eyebrows because Rubio, Toomey, Johnson and Ayotte are seen as occupying the middle ground between the leadership and the Tea Party caucus, who are expected to battle over the direction of the Republican Conference in the 112th Congress.

“It's no secret he uses these trips to co-opt new senators,” said a Senate Republican aide. “I'm sure the new senators know what he's up to, but it’s not exactly an invitation you can turn down.”

A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment in response to the anonymous charge.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham pushes Schumer for vote to dismiss impeachment article Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation MORE (R-S.C.) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOfficials discussing 25th Amendment for Trump following violence at Capitol GOP senator says Trump 'bears responsibility' for Capitol riot Republican infighting on election intensifies MORE (R-N.C.) also joined the codel, the jargon used to describe official congressional travel.

Two other conservative freshman senators with close ties to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings Former Missouri senator says backing Hawley was 'worst mistake of my life' MORE of Kentucky and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeRepublicans wrestle over removing Trump Lawmakers, leaders offer condolences following the death of Capitol Police officer GOP senators urging Trump officials to not resign after Capitol chaos MORE of Utah — were not on the trip, some conservatives noted.

DeMint, Paul and Lee, who defeated McConnell’s close friend, former Sen. Bob Bennett, in Utah’s Republican primary last year, recently announced they would form the Senate’s Tea Party caucus.

DeMint, the conservative leader of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, has battled with McConnell over the ideological direction of the conference, most famously on earmarks. McConnell and DeMint also took different sides in several Republican primaries last year.

Some Republican aides think McConnell is trying to bring Rubio, Toomey, Johnson and Ayotte into his sphere of influence.

All four are potential recruits to the Tea Party caucus. Other freshmen, such as Sens. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-Ill.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham pushes Schumer for vote to dismiss impeachment article Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP GOP in bind over Trump as corporate donations freeze MORE (R-Ohio) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto Republican senators introduce bill to protect government workers from being targeted at home Business groups scramble to forge ties amid race for House Agriculture chair MORE (R-Ark.), are considered less likely to side with DeMint, Paul and Lee in battles with the GOP leadership over spending, earmarks and other issues.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the Trent Lott quote about the leadership having to ingratiate itself as quickly as possible so the new senators can be co-opted,” said a second Republican aide. “It’s interesting who’s on the list and who’s not on the list. These trips are obviously used for that.”

Former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) predicted last year that McConnell would have to move quickly to build ties with conservative freshman senators.

“We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” Lott told The Washington Post in an interview. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

DeMint endorsed Paul in Kentucky’s primary, while McConnell first endorsed Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson.

DeMint also endorsed Rubio early in Florida’s Senate Republican primary, while McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John CornynJohn CornynHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Cruz, Cornyn to attend Biden inauguration McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (Texas) initially backed former Gov. Charlie Christ, who later dropped his Republican affiliation to run as an Independent.

Erick Erickson, a conservative political analyst and editor in chief of RedState.com, said Senate aides predicted before the election that McConnell would try to win over the conservative freshmen.

“I was hearing about this from Senate Republican leadership aides before the election, that once Mitch McConnell had taken them on trips, he was sure to get their votes on this and that,” Erickson said.

“I think that’s what’s going on — they’re attempting to shut down this potential Tea Party caucus,” he said.

“The question is whether these guys are going to be different than in the past,” Erickson added, in reference to the freshmen.

The freshman lawmakers flew on military transport to meet with Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani foreign secretary Salman Bashir and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, who is regarded as the nation’s most powerful leader.

“The purpose of this trip was to become familiar with our efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and to learn from our commanders on the field, our embassy officials and some of the people we are working with in these countries,” Toomey said in a statement.

McConnell will also build ties by doling out committee assignments to the freshmen.

McConnell organized a similar trip last January. He traveled with Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBiden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party Democratic lawmaker says 'assassination party' hunted for Pelosi during riot MORE (R-Alaska), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoSweeping COVID-19, spending deal hits speed bumps McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE (R-Idaho) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerWall Street Journal: GOP Electoral College 'stunt' will hurt US, Republican Party Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over Southwest Airlines says it won't furlough workers after Trump signed relief bill MORE (R-Miss.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) to Afghanistan and Pakistan to meet with senior officials.

Castle, a liberal Republican, was expected at the time to be a strong favorite to win Delaware’s Senate seat. Because of his centrist ideology, he was also viewed as a potentially inconsistent supporter of the leadership’s agenda.

Castle’s quest for the Senate derailed in September when he lost the Republican primary to Christine O’Donnell, whom DeMint endorsed.

Some conservatives say McConnell is simply doing his job as leader

“His job is to have as united a caucus as possible,” said Larry Hart, director of government relations at the American Conservative Union.

Brian Darling, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said: “I think it’s clearly an opportunity for McConnell to build relationships with newer members. Bringing members on codels is one way to build relationships and develop relationships on a one-on-one basis so he can maybe ask for things in the future.”

“There’s an ideological tug-of-war,” said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “The conservative end of the rope is going to win.”