Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has a major dilemma on his hands.
Throughout the past week, members of the Senate’s right wing — led by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rand Paul (R-KY) — have been publicly lobbying their Republican colleagues to block the passage of any continuing resolution funding the federal government, unless it defunds the Affordable Care Act. The plan is functionally dead in the water — several reliable Obamacare opponents in the Senate have already derided the plan’s obvious flaws (first and foremost among them, that shutting down the government wouldn’t actually halt the Affordable Care Act’s implementation) — but it remains a politically potent symbol in Republican politics.
“There is a powerful, defeatist approach among Republicans in Washington,” Senator Cruz pointedly said on Tuesday. “I think they’re beaten down and they’re convinced that we can’t give a fight, and they’re terrified.”
The remarks were a thinly veiled shot at McConnell, who has thus far refused to take a position on the government shutdown plan.
“We’ve had a lot of internal discussions about the way forward this fall in both the continuing resolution and, ultimately, the debt ceiling, and those discussions continue,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “There’s no particular announcement at this point.”
McConnell may have to make a decision sooner rather than later, however. Matt Bevin, the Tea Party-backed businessman who is challenging McConnell for the Republican nomination in Kentucky’s 2014 Senate election, is seizing on McConnell’s reticence in an effort to outflank the four-term incumbent from the right.
“Mitch McConnell’s rhetoric on defeating Obamacare is nothing but empty promises,” Bevin said in a statement released Wednesday. “Obamacare is a disaster and if we can’t repeal it, we have a responsibility to the American people to defund it.”
“I challenge Mitch McConnell to join me in signing the pledge to defund Obamacare,” he continued. “Instead of playing political games, it’s time to stand up for the people of Kentucky.”
McConnell currently holds a massive lead over the largely-undefined Bevin, but if Bevin continues to attract right-wing support, the race could tighten significantly. If McConnell decides that the risk of shutting down the government for no tangible gain outweighs the risk of prolonged public attack from Tea Party favorites such as Cruz and Lee, then he could find himself very vulnerable in a Republican primary. Although Bevin remains an extreme long shot to steal the nomination from McConnell, a closely-contested primary could do serious damage to McConnell’s chances in the general election.
If McConnell does sign on to the Lee plan, however, it could cause him an even bigger headache. His likely Democratic opponent in 2014 — Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — is already tailoring her campaign to paint McConnell as a “guardian of gridlock” who exemplifies the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. If McConnell agrees to attempt to shut down the government in a futile effort to repeal Obamacare, that image will be magnified — giving Grimes, who currently polls within striking distance of McConnell — a great political opportunity. Furthermore, due to McConnell’s status as the leader of the Senate Republicans, taking the extremist position could impact all the Republican senators on the ballot in 2014.
Whatever McConnell decides, it will not have a serious impact on the future of the Affordable Care Act. But it will have major ramifications in McConnell’s re-election battle — and could even decide which party ends up in control of the Senate.