Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a hardliner who frequently worked at odds with Boehner, was texting Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Friday morning to make a suggestion: “Next guy in the crosshairs is probably gonna be McConnell.” Lee, who chairs the conservative arm of McConnell’s GOP conference, texted back to doubt that conclusion. But Salmon and many other House conservatives are unswayed. “Mitch McConnell is infinitely worse as a leader than Boehner. He surrenders at the sight of battle every time,” Salmon said.
There may be 54 Republicans in the Senate, but only one has publicly expressed support for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). That endorsement came from none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Paul's grudging home-state partner.
With this support in mind, it was curious to see Kentucky's junior senator on Fox News this morning, confronted with a simple question: do you support McConnell's position as majority leader? Three times the Fox host asked Rand Paul for an answer, and as TPM noted this morning, three times the senator dodged.
The furthest Paul was willing to go was this faint praise for his colleague: "Well, there is no election. There is no battle going on." In other words, Paul supports McConnell insofar as he has no other choice right now.
But for many Capitol Hill conservatives, the fact that there is "no battle going on" is precisely the problem. Far-right members have helped force House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) out of Congress, and Politico reported late last week that many of these same lawmakers are equally eager -- if not more so -- to change Senate leaders, too.
To the extent that reality matters, Mitch McConnell, perhaps more than any Republican in the nation, has been the embodiment of anti-Obama obstructionism. No GOP lawmaker of the Obama era has gone as far as McConnell to reject every White House proposal -- regardless of merit, regardless of consequence, regardless of whether or not Republicans actually agreed with the administration.
The Kentucky senator has practically pioneered the art of mindless, knee-jerk obstructionism, relying on tactics with no precedent in the American tradition, undermining governance in ways that seemed impossible in the recent past.
But for far-right lawmakers, this record just isn't good enough.
Boehner's resignation "should be an absolute warning sign to McConnell,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told Politico. He added that conservatives' focus will now "invariably and should turn to McConnell in the Senate.”
Over the weekend, the chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana urged McConnell to resign.
The odds of McConnell stepping down anytime soon are roughly zero. Boehner faced growing pressure from a significant faction of his own caucus, but McConnell faces sporadic pressure from Ted Cruz -- whom most Senate Republicans are generally inclined to ignore. The qualitative and quantitative differences between the two GOP leaders are striking: McConnell was elected unanimously by his members, for example, while Boehner was not.
The importance of these developments isn't the practical threat McConnell faces. Rather, the fact that the anti-McConnell push exists at all is emblematic of the larger story about GOP radicalization. The rationale behind the far-right campaign against Boehner is that he failed to beat President Obama -- as if that were a credible outcome -- which put him at odds with Republican expectations. As the bulls eye shifts from one end of Capitol Hill to the other, McConnell faces the same foolish, misguided complaint, his record of confrontation with the White House notwithstanding.
The Majority Leader's position is secure, at least for the foreseeable future, but as the GOP base continues to direct its ire at party leaders, it'll be worth watching to see how many Senate Republicans dodge as clumsily as Rand Paul did this morning.