Sen. Mitch McConnell is the most influential Republican in America, a position he solidified earlier this month when he brokered a tax cut deal with Vice President Joe Biden to stop the nation from careening off the so-called "fiscal cliff." But he's hardly popular. With a state approval rating in the high-30s, the Senate minority leader, who hails from Kentucky, feels the heat from conservatives and liberals alike. Now, with almost two years until his 2014 reelection, the gang of activists eyeing McConnell is so diverse—from tea partiers and Ron Paul fanatics to Democrats and unions and campaign finance reformers—it might as well be a joke setup.
No fan of McConnell before the fiscal cliff drama, Kentucky right-wingers are mobilizing to take on their senior US senator. After House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), burdened with his rowdy caucus, failed to negotiate a deal on tax cuts, McConnell succeeded. But back home, grassroots conservatives grimaced as McConnell crafted a bipartisan agreement heavy on tax hikes on the superrich and light on spending cuts. Leading tea party activists say they're laying the groundwork for a "Ditch Mitch" effort: fundraising, meeting with members across the state, and quietly vetting candidates who could challenge McConnell in a GOP primary. Meanwhile, some of the most powerful liberal organizations in the country have identified McConnell, one of the most effective defenders of big-money politics, as a target in 2013 and 2014. "It'd be political malpractice not to push back on him," says David Donnelly, the executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund.
McConnell could be vulnerable. He commands enormous respect in Washington, but his popularity waxes and wanes back home. In 2008, he squeaked past Democrat Bruce Lunsford, the former treasurer of the state Democratic Party, by 6 points. A December survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling rated McConnell the least popular US senator, with 37 percent statewide approving of him and 55 percent disapproving. In a hypothetical matchup with the actress Ashley Judd, whose name has been floated as a Democratic challenger, a poll commissioned by McConnell's campaign put him up by just 4 points. Of course, McConnell's weak numbers are partly due to his visible role as a leader in Congress, which polls worse than colonoscopies, traffic jams, and Nickelback.
John Kemper, a statewide tea party leader and failed 2011 candidate for state auditor, says he plans to use his tea party contacts, email lists, and organizing networks formed over years of statewide political work to rally the conservative grassroots against McConnell. When reminded of McConnell's staggering $21 million fundraising haul in 2008, Kemper tells Mother Jones that he's spoken to "lots of Democrats and Republicans" ready to give serious money to a well-organized anti-McConnell effort. "They have said they'll write checks to beat McConnell," he says. Conservatives, he adds, still sting from McConnell's role in the fiscal-cliff deal: "We feel like he sold us out on that, and beforehand he was just feeding us political spin." (A McConnell spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
The biggest challenge for McConnell foes isn't raising money or recruiting volunteers; it's finding the right challenger. David Adams, a leading conservative in Kentucky who ran Sen. Rand Paul's campaign during the 2010 GOP primary, says Kentucky tea partiers must avoid offering up a gaffe-prone candidate like, for example, Indiana's Richard Mourdock, who last year knocked off mainstream Republican Richard Lugar but stumbled in the general election, handing a Senate seat to the Democrats. Right now, Adams says, Kentucky conservatives are searching for the type of candidate who appeals to the tea party, and even possibly to conservative Democrats (whether such a candidate exists remains to be seen), but doesn't babble on about rape when he or she gets behind a mike. "That's a big part of the chess-playing on our end right now," he says.
On the issues, Kentucky tea partiers want their candidate to be everything McConnell is not. "McConnell did whatever George W. Bush wanted, which added a great deal to the deficit," Kemper says. In Kentucky, the McConnell-controlled Republican Party of Kentucky—the state party's headquarters bears McConnell's name—refused to support tea-party-backed GOP candidates running for the state's General Assembly. But recently, McConnell has sought to burnish his conservative cred by showing up at tea party events, including a big statehouse rally last August to fight the creation of a state-based insurance exchange under Obamacare. "People believed it was a photo op for him, a way to co-opt the tea party movement," Kemper says. McConnell has also hired Jesse Benton, Ron Paul's former presidential campaign manager and a fixture of the Paul-led "liberty movement," to run his 2014 campaign.
On the left, liberal activists are figuring out how to mount an anti-McConnell campaign of their own. Last month, at an invite-only, off-the-record meeting of the Democracy Initiative, a new coalition of the nation's most powerful progressive groups, leaders of three dozen left-of-center organizations discussed targeting McConnell, according to notes taken by a person who attended the meeting.
There's a reason McConnell's name came up. Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, have used the filibuster to block much of the progressive agenda, including disclosure of secret campaign money, pro-union card-check legislation, and ending tax perks to big oil companies. McConnell led this obstruction while taking campaign cash from the industries benefiting from his obstruction, according to a Public Campaign Action Fund report. McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer has dismissed the report as "garbage" and a "shameless hack job."
Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $142.7 million during 2012 election cycle, has singled out McConnell as "one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country." In an election year with more than a dozen Senate Democrats up for reelection, McConnell offers the DSCC a chance to play offensive, and he'll likely face a blitz of DSCC spending.
Outside of the Democracy Initiative and the DSCC, the left's efforts to date pale in comparison to the juggernaut McConnell is expected to build. PCAF, the campaign finance reform group, is mining old McConnell statements and proposals that can be wielded against him in Congress and on the campaign trail. For instance, McConnell says limits on campaign giving and spending violate constitutionally protected free speech rights, but in 1987, he called for banning political action committees from donating to Congressional candidates, an apostasy by today's standards. "We're really thinking about how do we make him a less effective leader on the issue of money in politics," Donnelly says.
Meanwhile, Progress Kentucky, a state-based group, has already launched an anti-McConnell super-PAC intended to lure challengers, Democratic and Republican, into the race. The super-PAC's initial fundraising goal is a modest $100,000 (it's raised $1,028 from 34 people so far).
Challenging McConnell is nothing short of a Herculean task. McConnell's DC chief of staff Josh Holmes told National Journal in March 2012 that McConnell is "prepared to build a presidential-level campaign for 2014," hoping to raise enough money to scare off Democratic and GOP opponents. McConnell's strategy, as one of his campaign strategists explained, goes like this: "The old McConnell adage is 'If you throw a pebble at me, I'll throw a boulder back at you,' and clearly he is going to have a very ample supply of boulders."
An ideal McConnell challenger, tea partier David Adams says, might be a candidate who speaks to anti-war lefties but also appeals to free-marketers and Ron Paul types—a description that sounds a lot like Adams' former boss, Rand Paul. "Everyone who's not a corporatist should be able to get behind a grassroots attempt to knock off the most powerful Republican in the country," Adams says. "I don't think you need to out-Republican Mitch McConnell to beat him. But you can definitely out-free-market him."