There have been plenty of theories about why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) strode onstage at a conservative gathering late last week carrying a rifle.
Ostensibly, McConnell, the 72-year-old five-term senator, was paying tribute to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). The antique-style musket was part of an NRA Lifetime Achievement Award for the prominent budget hawk who is battling prostate cancer.
Although there’s no indication McConnell hunts, shoots targets or even owns a gun, the rifle also served as a handy prop for his reassertion of his conservative bona fides as he fends off a Tea Party primary challenge this spring – and faces an even tougher Democratic challenge this fall.
The professorial looking McConnell may have also been trying to evoke the image of Charlton Heston, the late actor and president of the NRA, who stirred conservative and pro-gun passions by holding up a musket at a convention in May 2000 while declaring that gun foes, including Democrat Al Gore, would have to pry the rifle from “my cold, dead hands.”
In his tough-talking speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, McConnell promised to fight “tooth and nail” for a conservative agenda if the Republicans regain control of the Senate in November and he succeeds Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada as the majority leader.
“If I’m given the opportunity to lead the United States Senate next year, I won’t let you down,” McConnell said to a lukewarm audience in suburban Maryland. “I will lead with integrity, we will fight tooth and nail for conservative reforms that put this country back on track, we will debate our ideas openly, we will vote without fear, and we will govern with the understanding that the future of this country depends on our success.”
McConnell may have had others in his sights besides President Obama and the Democrats when he delivered his call to arms. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have taken a hard line against outside conservative advocacy groups such as Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which are backing Tea Party challengers instead of more establishment Republican lawmakers.
Conservative GOP businessperson Matt Bevin is challenging McConnell in the Kentucky senatorial primary, while two other veteran Republican senators – Pat Roberts in Kansas and Thad Cochran in Mississippi – also face primary challengers who are being backed by some outside groups.
A few of these organizations have sharply criticized Boehner and McConnell for going along with bipartisan budget deals on new spending and raising the debt ceiling, rather than embracing the more disruptive tactics of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other more combative Tea Party adherents.
Boehner has charged that their true goal was to raise money and expand their organizations, not fight for any particular principle or policy. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said.
What’s more, as they sense that Republican control of both chambers of Congress is within their reach, McConnell and other top Republicans are challenging the advocacy groups head-on to try to undermine their credibility and deny them victories in the Senate races, according to The New York Times.
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told The Times, referring to the network of activist organizations working against him, Roberts and Cochran. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
McConnell’s campaign began airing a radio ad in Kentucky on Friday that attacked both Bevin and the Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the groups trying to oust McConnell.
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