Tea Party and the Right

GOP Meltdown: Senate Leader Faces Nightmare Election While Republicans in the House Defeat Themselves

Kentuckians are tired of their obstructionist U.S. senator.

Are new signs emerging that Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader and Kentucky Republican, is staring at the beginning of the end of his political life?

McConnell faces re-election in November 2014. That’s a lifetime in politics, but a mid-July poll by a nationally known and reputable firm, Public Policy Polling, has found the Democrat challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, led McConnell by one point—45 percent to 44 percent—in his sixth U.S. Senate race.

The poll found that a slim majority (51 percent) of Kentucky voters disapproved of his job performance, a slightly larger number (54 percent) said he didn’t deserve re-election, and about the same number (52 percent) said they would oppose McConnell if he backed reducing or postponing Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits.

“For what may be the first time in U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s long Senate career, a Democratic poll shows him trailing a challenger,” Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper reported. “The poll, a telephone sampling of 1,210 Kentucky voters, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, which means the race is essentially a dead heat.”

Public Policy Polling is a firm that mostly works for Democrats, but, according to the ex-New York Times pollster, Nate Silver, its 2012 polling was among the most accurate in the nation, even though its 71 polls slightly overestimated Republicans’ strength. The McConnell poll was sponsored by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy For America, long-time critics. A GOP-affiliated polling firm last week found McConnell was up by 8 points.

This summer is a long way from the November 2014 vote, but the McConnell campaign’s shrill response suggests they know McConnell is in a real political fight.

“George Soros and the Obama allies are up to their same old tricks,” said Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager. “They have concocted another fictitious poll that has no basis in reality, held it for 10 days, and released it at the perfect time in the news cycle to help their upstart liberal candidate. This poll has zero credibility and should be ignored out of hand.”

In December 2012, Public Policy Polling found that McConnell was the least popular senator and 55 percent of Kentuckians disapproved of his job performance. His mid-July numbers are essentially the same. But what’s changing in Washington is that McConnell has been moving to the right, especially in emerging fights over the 2014 federal budget. He faces a GOP primary next spring and is very mindful that his handpicked candidate for Kentucky’s other Senate seat, former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a poltical moderate, was trounced by Rand Paul, who won in the 2010 Tea Party wave. 

Thus, McConnell is caught between a slim majority of Kentuckians, who are tired of his obstructionist tactics, and GOP ideologues who are in synch with McConnell colleagues in the House Republican leadership, who are consumed by their hatred of all-things-Obama and want to slash spending for social safety nets and regulating big business.

This summer, the House Appropriations Committee has been rolling out budgets with the most draconian spending cuts in a generation. But their slash-and-burn tactics are not going as planned.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee bill for funding transportation, housing and urban development for the federal fiscal year starting October 1 was pulled from the House floor after it became clear it would be voted down because the cuts were too severe—even for Republicans who would have had to explain them to voters.

The legislation is one of several budget bills with programs valued by Democrats, such as community development block grants for cities, which underwrite a lot of local anti-poverty programs and faced a 47 percent cut; and funding for Amtrak, that was to be reduced by a third. Many program areas saw cuts that big or more.

“In total, the bill provides $44.1 billion in discretionary spending – a reduction of $7.7 billion below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and $13.9 billion below the President’s budget request,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Republican Hal Rogers, said in a late June press release, boasting of the slash-and-burn legislation.

After Wednesday’s House floor debacle, Rogers issued a defiant statement, saying, “This means that all government program – not just those on the discretionary side of the ledger – must be reduced.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate on Wednesday, Republicans fillibustered their version of the same bill—which would have spent $10 billion more than the House—blocking it from a vote. McConnell then pushed his GOP caucus to vote as a block and stop it from going forward. This means McConnell is not yet a weakened Senate leader, but it does mean he is at the helm of the GOP’s obstructionist machinery.

Kentucky voters may not be following the details of this political dysfunstion, but the mid-July poll placing Democrat Alison Grimes in a dead heat with McConnell suggests that a sizeable number of that state’s voters have had enough of their senior senator.

This fall’s epic budget battles are only beginning. Progressives and Democrats can only hope that McConnell’s role in the GOP’s attack on federal support for a range of middle-class and anti-poverty programs will not be forgotten by November 2014, and will spell the beginning of the end of his long political career.     

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).