Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy through the first week and a half of the government shutdown: lay low.
The powerful Kentucky Republican was largely silent as Sen. Ted Cruz – a Tea Party freshman from Texas – drove the fight over Obamacare, even as behind the scenes McConnell opposed the controversy.
Only in the eleventh hour has the wily deal maker jumped in in earnest, now driving negotiations that both Democrats and Republicans believe could be the makings of a deal.
McConnell’s reluctance to cut a deal early – or join Cruz in fully embracing Tea Party rhetoric – makes sense, considering the two fights he’s got ahead of him at home.
He’ll have to take on a Tea Party primary challenger next year. And if he survives, he’ll need to pivot and run against a moderate Democrat in the general election.
By staying quiet until the bitter end, he’s able to make a classic case to voters on the right and the left: it’s not me – it’s Washington.
"Angry with Washington? So am I," said McConnell in a radio ad his campaign began airing last week. "We all agree this government shutdown is a disgrace, and it’s hurting our country," said the Republican, pointing fingers at "President Obama and Harry Reid [who] have refused to negotiate."
And while McConnell is as talented a campaigner as there is, the anti-establishment sell is going to be a tough one for a man who served in Congress for the last 28 years.
He’s going for it, though.
McConnell told the Lexington Herald Leader Friday it was time for a "come together" moment to end the shutdown, and that despite pressures from far right flank of his party, compromise was the only way forward.
"If you paid any attention to my recent history, I'm not opposed to reaching agreements with this administration," McConnell told the Kentucky newspaper. "I do not have the view that it's inappropriate to talk to Democrats," noting his past work on bipartisan deals with Vice President Biden, who's been largely sidelined in negotaitions.
The Kentucky Republican's resurgence onto the negotiating scene late last week didn't go unnoticed in political circles after a conspicuous absence. After private grumbling within the party after Cruz took the anti-Obamacare reins, McConnell re-emerged last week, sounding a bipartisan, markedly anti-Washington tone. The day before, the longtime deal maker released the radio ad.
McConnell, despite facing a Tea Party challenger back home in Republican Matt Bevin, didn't vote with Cruz against cloture on the initial continuing resolution, which conservatives argued would allow Reid to strip the House provision to defund.
But he didn't voice a full throated opposition either, caught trying to balance two sides pulling him in different positions.
However, left without any clear exit strategy and seeing his support crater, once Cruz was largely muted, McConnell emerged. But could that have been McConnell's best strategy all along? With the Senate on the cusp of the deal, if it's McConnell who's able to claim credit, it may hurt him among the Tea Party but help him more broadly against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. If you follow the money -- and the poll numbers -- it makes sense. Not only did McConnell announce a blockbuster fundraising quarter last week, pulling in $2.27 million over the last quarter and $10 million in the bank, Bevin only brought in a paltry $222,000, supplemented by $600,000 from his own pockets. And with polls increasingly showing the GOP shouldering the blame, especially Tea Party Republicans, a sharp turn was necessary. "[McConnell] doesn't get enough credit for thinking three steps ahead of everyone else," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, who was communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the past two election cycles. "It's very easy to tell people in your own party what they want to hear. It's harder to be a leader and actually deal in the world of reality," said Walsh. "That's what we're seeing Sen. McConnell do, and he's a master at finding the best deal possible for Republicans at the end of the day." Even Democrats admit the last minute deal is a familiar McConnell strategy. "[McConnell] always kind of runs in and puts the deal together after letting everybody flail about," said veteran state Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley. "Now, people are looking for an adult in the room, and I hope it's not McConnell that gets to carry that flag," said Cauley. "I hope it's one of our guys." McConnell's campaign dismissed any larger motive, simply saying the Republican leader was doing his job. "Senator McConnell puts a premium on working to solve seemingly intractable problems and believes that politics will take care of itself simply by doing the right thing," the senator's campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore told MSNBC.com. That won't stop Tea Party conservatives from voicing their growing disdain. On Monday, fearing a deal was near, one of McConnell's biggest critics was pointing fingers at the GOP leader as the reason the main defund Obamacare strategy had fallen flat and that McConnell was now "negotiating the Republican surrernder" and he had "left his party powerless." "Republicans no longer have a say because McConnell won't let them take a stand when it matters. He's made them Republicans in name only," Senate Conservatives Fund executive director Matt Hoskins wrote in a blistering email to supporters, shared first with MSNBC.com. " He would rather concede to the Democrats than fight them. He would rather fund Obamacare than admit conservatives were right."
"Mitch McConnell has a long record of selling out conservative values when the stakes are high," said Bevin spokeswoman Rachel Semmel. "He has been anything but a leader on reducing government spending, ending bailout, and now, defunding Obamacare."