Headlines that Mitch McConnell wants to “crush” the Tea Party are spreading across conservative websites.
But the New York Times article, which quotes McConnell, is—of shock to no one—misleading.
The piece opens by providing a background of 2010 and 2012 Senate races in which conservative activist groups supported Tea Party candidates able to succeed in primaries, but unelectable in general races.
The Times identifies groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project, and FreedomWorks as similar players in 2014 Senate campaigns. In Kentucky, Kansas, and Mississippi, Tea Party candidates, with help from the above-mentioned groups, are opposing incumbents—McConnell being one of them. With those particular races in mind, and without referring to other Tea Party candidates not challenging incumbents like Greg Brannon in North Carolina, McConnell said the following:
I think we are going to crush them everywhere…I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.
The vagueness in pronouns makes the quote perfectly fit for exploitation. The author first discusses Tea Party campaign involvement in general, and then speaks of wide-ranging Tea Party primary opposition:
The goal is to deny them any Senate primary victories, cut into their fund-raising and diminish them as a future force in Republican politics.
Setting the stage for a general anti-Tea Party scheme on behalf of establishment Republicans, the author stealthily slips in McConnell’s quote.
McConnell delivered a response yesterday, clarifying his position:
I’ve always been and continue to be a big supporter of the Tea Party and the conservative change it’s bringing to Washington. One of the biggest obstacles to that change, however, is the Senate Conservatives Fund, a rogue political operation that has co-opted the Liberty movement for its own enrichment to the detriment of the conservative cause. This is a point that I have been making repeatedly and energetically over the past several months, because in my view this group has deceived a lot of good people. They claim to share our goals but undermine them at every turn. I think they should be stopped, and I don’t mind saying so.
In fact, just last Friday at CPAC, McConnell honored a Tea Party favorite, the retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), with a ceremonial rifle. The Times gives the impression that McConnell seized the rifle and blew a hole right through the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Of Coburn, McConnell said:
[Coburn represents] why it is we decided to run for office in the first place. He isn’t afraid of anything or anyone. He has never put himself above the cause.
Lead with integrity, fight tooth and nail for conservative ideals to put this country back on track…Socialist notions that never pan out will finally be put to rest.
Even if some are suspicious of McConnell’s genuine sympathy for senators like Tom Coburn, McConnell still has the sense not to say that the Tea Party ought to be crushed just days after praising it.
Strategically, McConnell is in a safe enough position where honoring Coburn would not determine his campaign victory. Monday’s Public Opinion Strategies poll shows him well ahead of his Republican challenger, Matt Bevin. That added to his higher fundraising numbers and the fact that incumbents almost always win the party nomination puts McConnell in a comfortable position for the upcoming May primary.
Certainly, the word “crush” isn’t characteristic of a political library voice. But his us-versus-them rhetoric pertained to protecting incumbents rather than a greater factional divide between the Tea Party and moderate Republicans. Can we really blame the leader of the Senate Republicans for feeling inclined to defend two of his party’s own?