(Corrects Marco Rubio’s career history in seventh paragraph in column published May 18.)
May 18 (Bloomberg) -- One of the more interesting intraparty fights to be decided today on Slightly Super Tuesday is the one between Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Jim DeMint.
Neither is running you say? Oh, but they are, in Kentucky, where the grass is blue, bourbon is the state’s leading export and the fillies are fast. The race to watch is for the Republican senate nomination that pits McConnell’s horse, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, against DeMint’s pick, Rand Paul, son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, iconoclastic presidential candidate and long a thorn in the side of traditional Republicans.
The two senators’ intrusion in the race makes it easier to predict a winner in this anti-incumbent year. McConnell screams establishment -- a smug, imperious, kingmaker who is trying to undo financial overhaul legislation by calling it another bailout. McConnell has received more money in donations from the finance, insurance and real estate industries than any other, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
McConnell drove fellow Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning into early retirement in favor of Grayson, famous for illegally purging 8,000 Kentucky voters from the rolls in 2003, and such an insider that he broadcast it in an ad, labeling Paul the “outsider” who is proud to be so called. It’s been downhill from there as Grayson garnered endorsements from former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Paul, meanwhile, is a dream come true for DeMint, an unabashed Tea Party advocate with a 98.4 percent ranking from the American Conservative Union who favors disinfecting the party even if it means backing candidates who can’t win.
Paul is the founder of the anti-tax Kentucky Taxpayers United and a harsh critic of Medicare, the Drug Enforcement Administration, abortion, the Department of Education and the bank bailout. On the 236th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Paul called for a “modern-day revolution.” When 23 U.S. senators held a fundraiser for Grayson in September, Paul countered with one online that raised almost $200,000 in 24 hours, bring his take to well over $1 million.
Look at what’s happened already. Who would have thought that Florida Governor Charlie Crist would be running 30 points behind Tea-Party-friendly candidate, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, forcing him to quit his party and run for the Senate as an independent? Or that Senator Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican with an 84 percent conservative rating from the American Conservative Union, would be thrown out of office earlier this month at his party’s state convention?
And there’s the slam dunk that isn’t. Senator Arlen Specter preemptively left the Republican Party when faced with sure extinction at the hands of arch-conservative Pat Toomey in a primary election in Pennsylvania. DeMint played a role in driving Specter away, pulling him off the Senate floor in April last year to tell him he would be backing Toomey, former president of the Club for Growth. A few days later, Specter switched parties.
Specter then, perhaps unwisely, extracted the backing of the entire Democratic establishment, which gave it in exchange for his vote for Obama’s health-care legislation. It might be his undoing.
As an incumbent of two parties in a year when it’s dangerous to be an incumbent of either, his initial double-digit lead was largely based on being a household name in the state for 30 years. It shrank in the final days to zero after a brilliant ad showed him being embraced by former President George W. Bush and current one, Barack Obama. Junior Democratic Representative Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral who tried to cut the fleet and who bucked the entire Democratic establishment to challenge Specter, may well win.
Mainstream Republicans worry over DeMint’s crusade. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that moderates like her are getting “the distinct feeling that we are no longer welcome in the tribe” -- even in her Maine tribe, which chucked its sensible Yankee platform earlier this month in favor of a DeMint Tea Party manifesto.
Out with gay marriage, welfare, one-world government via United Nations treaties, cap and trade, global warming (a myth), the Federal Reserve, the Department of Education, and stimulus funds; in with “Austrian economics,” a sealed border (with our good neighbors to the North), gun rights and zero-based budgeting.
Don’t be surprised if DeMint comes next for Snowe and Maine’s other senator, Susan Collins.
You don’t have to be a moderate to be in danger of being scrubbed. In Utah, now that Bennett is gone, junior Congressman Jason Chaffetz is considering a challenge to Senator Orrin Hatch, a 36-year veteran. Hatch’s offense is to have bragged of his long friendship with the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.
Just ask Crist if that’s enough for banishment. His offense, punishable by death, was hugging Obama in the midst of pursuing stimulus funds for his state. It proved a killer.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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