November 2012: The fight for the heart of the Senate GOP

Ewan Watt gives us an in-depth, unparalleled analysis of the race for the US Senate in 2012

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The elephant in the room... Senate 2012
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Ewan Watt
On 6 July 2011 10:29

The intra-party fight over a balanced budget amendment is unlikely to be the last time you see Senator Mitch McConnell and Tea Party Republicans scrapping it out.  With the 2012 elections, the GOP has a golden opportunity to not just remove Barack Obama, but also to seize back the Senate for the first time since the disastrous midterms of 2006.  But these elections will not just be about defeating Democrats, but also about who has control of the GOP.

In 2012 there will be thirty-three seats up, with the Republicans defending ten to the Democrats' twenty-one.  The two Senate independents (who both caucus with the Democrats) in Vermont and Connecticut are also up, although Joe Lieberman is retiring. 

The Republicans will be looking for pick-ups in (likely order) North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Other races in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico will certainly be followed closely, although talk of GOP pick-ups there has ebbed somewhat. 

And yet accompanying the Democrats fighting to stay in their jobs are Republicans Orrin Hatch and Richard Lugar, the two most senior Republicans in the Senate.  Rather than brawling with liberals, Hatch and Lugar, who have 70 years of seniority between them, face the daunting task of overcoming troublesome primaries.  And if the last two years is anything to go by, the GOP is far from reluctant to oust sitting senators.

Lugar, who was re-elected more or less unopposed with eighty-seven percent of the vote in 2006, faces State Treasurer Richard Mourdock who boasts that he has endorsements from a majority of Indiana’s GOP county chairmen. 

Mike Pence, the ambitious and fiercely conservative congressman turned gubernatorial candidate, has remained silent, refusing thus far to endorse either candidate.  If Pence fails to endorse Lugar it would be seen as a major snub, especially since the congressman supported Dan Coats in his Senate primary run last year, despite his checkered record on protecting the Second Amendment.  However, Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels has endorsed Lugar, hardly a surprise when he managed his last Senate campaign. 

Hatch is likely to face a much more difficult task of holding onto his seat, having already witnessed the ousting of Senator Bob Bennett by Tea Party favorite Mike Lee in Utah’s GOP convention in 2010.  Hatch looks set to face Representative Jason Chaffetz who is likely to signal his intentions by Labor Day (September 5). 

Club for Growth is actively pushing for Chaffetz to declare.  Although a conservative, Hatch – like Lugar – has a record of bipartisanship, a reputation that has hardly endeared him to the Tea Party crowd, or FreedomWorks, an organization that’s already pledged to force the senator into retirement.  An endorsement for Hatch from Senator Lee is not forthcoming.

If Hatch and Lugar are ousted and the Republicans win back the Senate, the repercussions would be quite considerable when one considers committee assignments, the direction of the party, and the fate of Mitch McConnell as leader. 

If Lugar falls, Senator Bob Corker – hardly the most recognized voice in foreign affairs – would be in line to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  If Hatch loses, Senator Olympia Snowe, not exactly the darling of the conservative movement (who also faces a challenging primary), would likely chair the powerful Finance Committee because Senator Chuck Grassley would fall victim to the GOP’s term limits on chairmanships. But the “math” doesn’t stop there. 

If Snowe chairs Finance, Senator Jim DeMint – the GOP’s de facto leader according to some insiders – could be in line to chair the Commerce Committee because of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s impending retirement.  And when one considers the ongoing disputes between Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board in South Carolina, it’s a role that Senator DeMint would no doubt relish.

And here is where current McConnell comes in. 

Earlier this year when Senator John Ensign finally resigned, a vacancy opened up on the Senate Finance Committee.  Senator DeMint, one of the founders of the Senate Tea Party caucus, publicly campaigned for the position only for McConnell to give the position to Senator Richard Burr, despite the fact that he had “no interest” in the role.  Of course McConnell’s defenders spun the appointment, citing Burr’s seniority from serving an additional two terms in the House, but the slight was clear.  DeMint accepted the decision, but relations between him and McConnell – if ever strong – appear to be beyond repair.

Senator McConnell’s authority within the caucus hardly resembles that of a leader and will be diminished further if more DeMint-sponsored candidates emerge victorious next year. DeMint won’t back any candidates against sitting Republican senators in 2012, but he’s also highly unlikely to call for the Tea Party to unite behind Hatch or Lugar.  Losing these old-timers would only exacerbate the problem for McConnell.

But McConnell may well survive to become majority leader, simply because it would be bad politics to oust him immediately after victory.  However, it’s doubtful whether he would possess the power to block internal appointments and actually lead the party.  For the latter, it’s questionable whether he ever has.

Ewan Watt is a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He can be followed on Twitter on @ewancwatt

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