Glance at the political prospects of Mitch McConnell, hero of the fiscal-cliff talks who swooped in at the last minute to broker a deal with Democrats, and you might think he's in trouble with tea partiers heading into 2014, a sitting duck for a primary in deeply conservative Kentucky. In each of the last two election cycles, Republicans have seen a senator ousted in primaries, with other establishment figures facing unexpected challenges from upstart conservative opposition.
But McConnell is very unlikely to suffer the same fate of his former Senate colleagues, Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett. He's probably not going to even sweat a primary this time around. Indeed, McConnell's tireless work protecting his conservative flank back home played an underappreciated role in allowing him to cut a fiscal-cliff compromise with Vice President Joe Biden that's earned him sharp criticism from the Right.
For all the tea party's skepticism, McConnell, elected in 1984 and Republican leader since 2007, has worked overtime over the last year to shore up weaknesses with the conservative base. He hired Ron Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to manage his reelection last September, months before the November election. His productive relationship with Paul ensures that any potential primary challenger wouldn't have the tea party favorite's support — a near-fatal blow from the outset of any challenger's campaign. His status as the top-ranking Republican in the Senate still carries currency among voters at home, who recognize that his clout brings money back to an economically struggling state. Meanwhile, McConnell has banked nearly $6.8 million in cash on hand for his reelection — an imposing amount that's scaring off challengers, both Republican and Democratic.
"I think he's playing it smart. The best way to not get beat by someone sneaking up on you is to not get snuck up on. Mitch McConnell's smart enough to not let that happen," says Phil Moffett, who, as a tea party candidate, finished second in the GOP primary for Kentucky governor in 2011.
To be sure, there are plenty of tea party types who revile what they'd call McConnell's complicity in brokering a fiscal-cliff deal that raises taxes on the wealthy and did little to cut spending. The Bluegrass State's tea party bases in the suburbs of Cincinnati and Bowling Green bristle with the sentiment, operatives and activists say. Plus fellow Kentuckian and tea party favorite Rand Paul voted against the deal brokered by the minority leader — a sign of the political mood of conservatives in the state.
"I think the tax increases in this deal and the certainty that spending is going out of control puts him at risk," says Kentucky tea party activist David Adams.
But even Randy Keller, a founder of the Bowling Green Tea Party, says that even while McConnell won't win any support from true-blue tea partiers, he's a shoo-in to win the nomination.
“He will run virtually uncontested because the people of Kentucky are more impressed with his title—and that's cynical to say—but having spoken to thousands of Kentuckians that's the way it's gonna be,” Keller says.