Mitch McConnell draws a line in the sand for the Tea Party

Up until now, the war between the Tea Party and the “establishment GOP” (however you define that) has been kind of one sided. Responses from the old guard have tended to run along the lines of, “we’re all fighting for the same goals, we just don’t agree on the tactics” or, more simply, “can’t we all just get along?” But this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sat down with Peggy Noonan for a WSJ interview which is bound to have some tongues wagging. In it, he’s essentially taken off the gloves, and said what most of the media mavens have been repeating for months now.

“The most important election yesterday wasn’t the governor of New Jersey and it wasn’t the governor of Virginia, it was the special election for Congress in South Alabama, where a candidate who said the shutdown was a great idea, the president was born in Kenya, and that he opposed Speaker Boehner came in second.” The victory of a more electable Republican, is significant, Mr. McConnell says. To govern, parties must win. To win, parties must “run candidates that don’t scare the general public, [and] convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us—we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”

The tea party, he says, consists of “people who are angry and upset at government—and I agree with them.” But “I think, honestly, many of them have been misled. . . . They’ve been told the reason we can’t get to better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true, and I think that the folks that I have difficulty with are the leaders of some of these groups who basically mislead them for profit. . . . They raise money . . . take their cut and spend it” on political action that hurts Republicans.

He also didn’t shy away from taking on the Senate Conservatives Fund.

He refers to the Senate Conservatives Fund. “That’s the one I’m prepared to be specific about.” The fund “has elected more Democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the last three cycles.” The group is targeting Mr. McConnell with ads slamming his leadership during the shutdown. “Right now they’re on the air in obvious coordination with Harry Reid’s super PAC—Harry Reid’s!—in the same markets, at roughly the same amount, at the same time.”

The last money quote for you refers specifically to the primary challenge he’s facing.

But says he isn’t worried about his own race: “I don’t wanna be overly cocky, but I’m gonna be the Republican nominee next year.”

This is about as close to an open declaration of war that McConnell has come. It would seem that the time for “let’s all go along to get along” is over, and the GOP is ready to air all the dirty laundry in public. But here’s one interesting thing for you to consider this morning. You’ll notice that Mitch didn’t say, “I’m gonna be the Senate Minority Leader after the next election” or, “I’m going to be serving in this seat for another six years.” He just said he was going to be the nominee. That sounds like his focus has shifted to the very real battle he faces on his own Right flank, rather than pretending that the Tea Party challenge is little more than the buzzing of flies and he’s focusing on his Democratic challenger.

I’m not sure how much else he can (or needs to) do at this point. McConnell has secured the early endorsements of as many big hitting Tea Party folks as he could find out of the gate, starting with Rand Paul. He’s raised money in piles he hasn’t needed in a very long time and attempted to define his opponent long before he got enough cash and clout to define himself. In short, McConnell has followed every rule in the standard election playbook to set himself up for a win, and all he can do now is hope that the voters follow predictable patterns.

But is Mitch somehow “giving permission” for everyone else in the country – from Graham to Enzi – to start putting up wanted posters of Tea Party upstarts with targets on their faces? If so, Reagan’s 11th commandment is well and truly out the window for both sides, and the primary is going to be a far more bloody affair than I’d been predicting as recently as this summer. Discuss.

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