Tea party voters could dump McConnell by staying home [Commentary]

The dilemma facing the true grassroots tea party believers -- the dilemma they do not acknowledge -- is that their primary goal of whittling and whacking away at big government undercuts their secondary goal of saving the middle class from the greedy grip of big corporations.

If Democrats have a unifying philosophy, it is that government needs to be effective enough to curtail the economic and environmental abuses of unfettered capitalism. Republicans, on the other hand, preach the dogma that smaller government and unrestricted corporate power serves the best interests of the common man and woman.


The tea party folks have largely bought into that belief, but still they are uncomfortable with Republicans who appear to be too much in thrall to big business. That is partly why a big tea party effort was mounted against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky's Republican primary. Mr. McConnell was rightly seen as the epitome of the GOP establishment that the tea partiers so disdain. Yet, even with major support from national tea party organizations such as FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund, challenger Matt Bevin could not depose the incumbent senator.

Now Mr. McConnell faces a robust challenge from Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who at age 35 has been alive exactly as long as Mr. McConnell has been in the U.S. Senate. Polls show Ms. Grimes is in striking distance of beating the old veteran.


Right now, to help Ms. Grimes, Democrats are making a big deal out of a private speech Mr. McConnell gave two months ago at a clandestine strategy conference sponsored by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Caught on an audio recording, the message the minority leader gave to that gathering of super rich campaign donors might dissuade the more populist-leaning tea party voters from ever giving their support to the man who stands a very good chance of being majority leader come January.

In his remarks, Mr. McConnell proved himself to be a devoted servant of Wall Street and big corporations, which should be no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the man's political career. He boasted about his pro-billionaire agenda -- he has tirelessly fought against raising the minimum wage, repeatedly opposed extensions of unemployment benefits and scuttled changes in student loan rules that would help struggling students with a small tax on the country's wealthiest citizens -- and pledged to continue the fight against other so-called big government programs, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and restrictions on the financial services industry that were imposed after high-flying bankers and financiers nearly destroyed the U.S. economy in 2008.

The core focus of his pitch to the plutocrats was a reassertion of his vehement opposition to campaign finance limits. He praised the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that said corporations have the same rights to political activity as real human beings. "So all Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech," Mr. McConnell said, as if corporate moguls like the Kochs are even competing in the same league as the common man on the street when it comes to political spending.

Mr. McConnell also reminded the audience that he had opposed earlier restrictions on campaign spending passed by fellow Republicans. "The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his fist administration," he said.

Mr. McConnell wants corporations to spend as much as they want in political campaigns and he happily accepts their donations (for the last five years, Wall Street interests have been the biggest contributors to his campaign committee). In return, he will continue to fight any limit on corporate power, diligently carrying on a long Republican tradition that stretches back to the days of the robber barons of the 19th century. When Mr. McConnell is out campaigning among coal miners and farmers, he speaks as if he is the champion of the little guy; however, the real Mr. McConnell comes through when he is behind closed doors with his billionaire backers (according to one Democratic source, that group includes a fifth of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans).

The question is whether tea party voters can stomach this. Will they hold their nose and show up to vote for Mr. McConnell? As the nation moves into the fall congressional campaign season, the McConnell/Grimes race could go either way. If tea party voters really want to be rid of McConnell, all they may have to do is stay home on Election Day.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to see more of his work.