GOP Mutiny Could Unseat Boehner and McConnell as Party Leaders
Mitch McConnell and John Boehner
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The Fiscal Times
April 14, 2014

It increasingly looks as if the Republicans will regain control of Congress this fall, with the GOP narrowly winning back a majority in the Senate and the House GOP either retaining or slightly building on its majority. But will the two top Republican leaders – House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- be around to enjoy the spoils of victory?

Both Boehner of Ohio and McConnell of Kentucky are crafty and highly resilient veterans who would be difficult for their opponents to bring down even under the best of circumstances. Yet McConnell is facing arguably one of his toughest reelection campaigns this fall while Boehner appears headed for another tough internal challenge from far-right House conservatives for the speakership shortly after the mid-term election.

Related: Get Ready for One-Party Rule If GOP Wins the Senate 

While some political experts say it is far too soon to speculate on what the future holds for McConnell and Boehner, there are clearly some troubling signs on the horizon for the two leaders:

Mitch McConnell: While McConnell is expected to easily fend off a primary challenge from Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin, it will be a much rockier road for the 71-year-old leader in the general election against Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state. Lundergan Grimes, held an early 46 percent to 42 percent lead over McConnell in a Feb. 7 SurveyUSA poll conducted by the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. A Rasmussen poll a few days earlier showed the two in a virtual deadlock.  

Lundergan Grimes, 35, is the daughter of former Kentucky Democratic chairman and state representative Jerry Lundergan and the political protégé of former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Late last month, Clinton made his first 2014 campaign stop in Kentucky and helped Lundergan Grimes raise more than $600,000 at a downtown Louisville luncheon.  While McConnell appears positioned to easily win the Republican primary, he'll be in the fight of his political life to win a sixth term as Kentucky's senior senator. 

Lundergan Grimes’s lead is slender and could vanish as McConnell’s campaign turns up the heat. But McConnell has an added problem of surmounting an extraordinarily low approval rating among Kentucky voters. Only 32 percent approve of McConnell, which is lower than even President Obama’s 34 percent rating in the Blue Grass State. 

Related: Bill Clinton on Dems’ Best Hope to Keep the Senate 

With women and young voters, McConnell trails Grimes badly, losing women 49 percent to 37 percent and Millennials by 43 percent to 34 percent. Among voters who identified themselves as politically "moderate," another key demographic, 55 percent said they had an unfavorable view of McConnell, compared with 15 percent for Grimes 

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore issued a statement saying that “We’re very comfortable about where the race stands and extremely confident that Sen. McConnell will earn the vote of Kentuckians this fall.” 

John Boehner:  Boehner was narrowly reelected speaker of the House in January 2013 with just six votes to spare after 12 conservative Republicans defected. The speaker’s standing with many of his most conservative members hasn’t improved in the subsequent year and a half. The National Journal reported last week that 40 to 50 frustrated House conservatives are scheming to infiltrate the GOP leadership next year – possibly by forcing Boehner to step aside immediately after the November midterm  elections. 

Boehner has survived previous insurrections with deft moves that occasionally won the plaudits of his conservative wing. But the biggest complaint now is that Boehner and his lieutenants are taking a “don’t rock the boat” approach to the election campaign, and are not promoting “big ideas.”

“The masterminds of this mutiny are trying to stay in the shadows for as long as possible to avoid putting a target on their backs,” according to the report. “But one Republican said the "nucleus" of the rebellion can be found inside the House Liberty Caucus, of which he and his comrades are members. This is not surprising, considering that some of the key players in that group—Justin Amash of Michigan, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky—were among the 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner's reelection in January 2013.

Related: Boehner Under Siege from Conservative Groups

If those numbers hold, organizers told the National Journal they could force Boehner to step aside as speaker in late November, when the incoming GOP conference meets for the first time, by showing him that he won't have the votes to be reelected in January.

Over the weekend, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, sought to quash speculation that Boehner was in any serious trouble.

 “I’ve not seen anything that shows me that,” Walden said on CNN’s “State of the Union with Candy Crowley” program. “I would tell you this, nobody works harder to maintain and grow our majority than Speaker Boehner has. He has the toughest job in Washington, D.C. when you think about it. And I think he’s done a good job. And I think he’ll get reelected as speaker.”

In a sense, Boehner’s political woes are the mirror opposite of McConnell’s.  Boehner enjoys overwhelming voter support in his Cincinnati -Dayton district but has struggled almost from the day he first won the gavel in November 2010 to hold together a highly fractious GOP majority in the House.  McConnell -- with a few notable exceptions among Tea Party adherents -- enjoys widespread support among his fellow Senate Republicans but has alienated many voters back home.

Related: Tribalism Threatens GOP Senate Chances in 2014

Both men at strategic moments sought to cut deals with Obama on the budget, taxes and the debt ceiling – but with varying degrees of success. And both have been unrelenting critics of the president’s signature Affordable Care Act and much of his economic and social agenda. Boehner has also ruled out any action on immigration reform this year, despite the president’s call for action.

McConnell and Boehner prompted an uproar among tea party Republicans in February for their roles in passing the bill to raise the debt ceiling for another year. Boehner passed the bill in the House with the support of only 28 Republicans after he repeatedly failed to galvanize the majority Republicans around any measure that would link raising the nation’s borrowing authority to a GOP policy demand – such as eliminating a cut in military pension benefits for some retirees or authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. 

McConnell and Boehner have also 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. Yet both realize that their future success depends on maintaining strong ties to their party’s conservative wing.

In his tough-talking speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in early March, 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. “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.” 

Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican communications strategist, said on Monday he is betting that both leaders will survive this fall. Talk of their possible demise “is very hypothetical,” he said. “And I do think both leaders will likely be back. “To try to oust a sitting leader in the Senate is very difficult, and all we’re hearing right now is rumors in the media regarding conservatives going after Boehner.”

“I guess I could say that if both leaders didn’t come back – which is probably unlikely – it would be a shame because they worked so hard to achieve a Republican majority, should we take back the Senate.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.