Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has done everything he can to court the tea party in the runup to his 2014 reelection campaign -- up to and including hiring a high-ranking lieutenant in the Ron/Rand Paul universe to run that race. But, for one leading tea party-aligned group, it's still not enough.
"Mitch McConnell is now the least electable Republican senator running for reelection in 2014," said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a super PAC once associated with former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint. "He could lose this race and cost Republicans the majority. He needs to consider whether it might be time to hang it up."
Them's fighting words. And, the McConnell team was ready with a response. "Any Republican who thinks Senator McConnell is vulnerable is living in an alternate universe, probably of their own creation," said Jesse Benton, the aforementioned campaign manager for McConnell's 2014 race.
And so, we are at a standoff. The Senate Conservatives Fund thinks "that [McConnell's] had a long, successful political career but this could be the time to pass the torch," according to Hoskins. McConnell thinks the SCF is living on another political planet. So, who's right?
McConnell has never won his races by huge margins. With the exception of his 2002 race, which he won with 65 percent, McConnell has never won reelection with more than 55 percent of the vote; in 2008, he won a fifth term with 53 percent. And, polling done on McConnell this year -- none of which is top-of-the-market stuff -- suggests that more people view him unfavorably than favorably.
Still, McConnell is not a political dead man walking, the likes of which we have seen among some Senate incumbents -- Chris Dodd in Connecticut in 2010, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas in 2010, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania in 2006 -- in recent years. (One of those dead-man-walking senators -- Missouri's Claire McCaskill -- managed to win her reelection race in 2012.) McConnell is a Republican senator running in a safely Republican state against an unknown challenger in Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. His poll numbers aren't great, but neither are they catastrophic.
Could, to Hoskins' point, another Republican without the long political history of McConnell be a better (or easier) bet to win in Kentucky? Sure. But, consider this counter-argument: McConnell's leadership position in the Senate is worth the fight, given that replacing him with a freshman Republican would mean a massive diminution in the Bluegrass State's power in the Senate.
To that, Hoskins responded: "Senator McConnell certainly has a lot of power, but the sad truth is he rarely uses that power to fight for conservative principles. He tells everyone in Kentucky he is powerful, but then pretends to be powerless against Obama's agenda in Washington."
Here's the reality: McConnell ain't retiring. And that puts the ball in the Senate Conservatives Fund's court.
If the SCF doesn't think McConnell is the best choice to be the Republican nominee, the group needs to find someone who would be better and then help fund that person to battle the very well-financed McConnell. And, with nearly $1.3 million in the bank as of March 31, the SCF could do just that if it made the Kentucky race a priority.
At the moment, that seems unlikely. Unless and until the SCF decides to recruit a candidate -- or a candidate recruits himself or herself -- talk of McConnell retiring is just that: talk.