By almost all accounts, the Republicans are going to take control of the Senate in today’s midterm elections and thus control the entirety of the legislature. A GOP controlled Senate would make Mitch McConnell (R-KY) the Majority Leader, a title he has been gunning for a while. However, he may soon find that becoming Majority Leader of a fractured and rebellious Republican Party may not be what he wanted after all.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has discovered that trying to rein in the fringe of his party is no walk in the park. The rise of the Tea Party insurgency has created many headaches for the Speaker and has led to questions regarding his ability to be a leader.
For McConnell, the cards might already be stacked against him as the Washington Post reported this weekend that the influential Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated he would not pledge support to Mr. McConnell. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele stated in an interview appearance on cable television Tuesday that Senator Cruz is closer to members of the House, which may cause problems for McConnell because as Majority Leader in one house of a bicameral legislature, McConnell will have to build relationships with key members of the GOP House. In fact, it was Senator Cruz who orchestrated the government shutdown during the fall of 2013 gaining the support of members of both the House and Senate despite calls from Republican leadership in both houses not to steer the ship off the cliff. Cruz wields a lot of influence as he demonstrated a year ago pulling the strings from behind the scenes and meeting in secret closed door meetings with members of the House and Senate.
In addition to Cruz, it has also been reported that Iowa Senate candidate and Tea Partier Joni Ernst will not support McConnell either. Ernst is slated to win her race in Iowa, an influential position given that the Iowa Caucuses are the first major test for the presidential primary season, and will be a likely ally to Cruz’s cause. As the Post highlighted, Cruz has been campaigning for several candidates lining up a group of a dozen or so potential supporters if they all win their races. This fracturing within the party may cause more problems for mainstreamers such as McConnell and Boehner down the road as well as the party as a whole. The Post quoted moderate Congressman Peter King (R-NY) as saying, “[Cruz] is the last one we should listen to…Don’t forget – a year ago he brought Republicans over the cliff.”
McConnell may enjoy solace in the fact that if the Republicans do take the Senate, the majority of committee chairmanships will be held by relative moderates and individuals who have been in Congress for decades – just like McConnell. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and would likely be slated to gain the chairmanship. Shelby has been in office since the late 1980’s and would be a likely ally for McConnell. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee would likely go to Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who in the last election cycle almost lost her seat. Murkowski lost in the primary but continued to campaign as a write-in on the ballot – not an easy task especially given her potentially difficult to spell last name. Murkowski is in favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline, as is the current chair of the committee Mary Landrieu (D-LA) whose seat is currently in jeopardy and will likely go to a runoff. In fact, Landrieu and Murkowski are good friends and enjoy a great working relationship. An across the aisle track record may work as a bulwark to potential extremist influence from the far right.
One committee chairmanship that might be of worry for McConnell is Rules. The current ranking member is Pat Roberts (R-KS) who is in a tight race with Independent challenger Greg Orman. Roberts has been endorsed by Tea Party darling Sarah Palin, who also stumped for Roberts back in September. Palin stated during her speech, “He’s one of the few senators fulfilling campaign promises, doing what the American people asked him to do, standing there on the floor with Sen. Ted Cruz to do what they could to get rid of ObamaCare.” Roberts has also been side by side with Republican establishment legend and former presidential candidate Bob Dole. Dole criticized Cruz and his supporters for orchestrating the government shutdown last year. Roberts faced controversy when asked which view he supported, Dole or Palin/Cruz, to which he aptly responded, “both.” While Roberts may be playing politics to keep his job, it nonetheless could pose problems for establishment individuals such as McConnell.
However, Tea Party candidates don’t necessarily need committee chairmanships to wield a ton of influence. As demonstrated in the past, vocal members such as Cruz have rallied conservatives around beating up President Obama and his agenda. By calling on conservatives to continue the battle, which the party will be emboldened to do if they control the Congress as a whole, committee chairs may be pressured by public opinion and members of their own party to hold hearings based solely on political whims.
If Republicans take the Senate, can Leader McConnell stave off a coup from the far right and unify his party? Looming ahead is the 2016 election, which several pundits have warned are just as bad for Republicans as this election cycle is for Democrats. With that in mind, McConnell will have to set the tone for the party if he wants to maintain the majority in the foreseeable future. Tumultuous members such as Ted Cruz are rocking the boat pretty hard and might succeed in capsizing it all together. Boehner has been beaten to a pulp and many have conjectured that he could be challenged for his speakership, though unlikely. He has been seen as a weak leader in unifying his party. The same fate may befell McConnell as well. Or McConnell could silence the Tea Party as he did in his primary where he beat his Tea Party challenger quite handily after polls predicted a tight race. Time will tell.