McConnell pushing outsider candidates toward his goal

Looking to become majority leader

The Washington PostSeptember 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The consummate Senate insider, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has spent the past six weeks stumping across the nation for Republicans who fashion themselves as outsiders ready to storm the Capitol.

The Senate minority leader, hoping to swap that title for "majority leader," has mounted an under-the-radar campaign that has emphasized fund-raising for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But he has also mixed in a series of public and private appearances with many Senate candidates who have vowed to shake up the status quo in Washington.

There was a fund-raiser with ex-businesswoman Carly Fiorina, trying to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and a fund-raising dinner with Marco Rubio, the conservative Floridian who forced Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party. Later this week, McConnell will welcome Sharron Angle — the Tea Party favorite from Nevada trying to oust Majority Leader Harry Reid, D — to a fund-raiser in Washington.

McConnell's warm embrace of the outsiders could become awkward now that Christine O'Donnell, long considered a conservative gadfly in Delaware's political circles, defeated party favorite Rep. Mike Castle in Tuesday's primary to fill the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.

McConnell has backed efforts by leading Delaware Republicans to portray O'Donnell as unstable and incapable of winning the general election in liberal-leaning Delaware. The loss by Castle could prompt the GOP to abandon Delaware altogether, in order to shore up its position in the other 15 or so races that need tending.

Otherwise, McConnell is doubling down on his crop of candidates, embracing their wide diversity and energy created by their campaigns.

"I've never seen anything like it, and then you see the poll data," McConnell said in a telephone interview last week as he crisscrossed Kentucky on behalf of another outsider candidate, Rand Paul, the libertarian doctor who defeated a McConnell protege in a May primary.

The data show Republicans tied or ahead in Kentucky and the four other GOP-held seats in which the incumbent is retiring, as well as clear Republican leads in five races for seats currently held by Democrats, including Delaware.

If those polling trends hold firm, McConnell's chances of vaulting from leading a near powerless caucus of 41 Republicans to heading up a 51-seat majority would hinge on the outcome of a handful of toss-up races on Democratic turf.

Success would vault McConnell into his long-held dream of becoming majority leader, placing him alongside Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the likely House Speaker in such an electoral washout, as the most powerful Republicans.

Boehner, the House minority leader, has mounted a national campaign for Speaker, pledging to change the way that chamber does business. The White House and its allies have made critiquing Boehner a key part of their closing argument strategy in the final 50 days of the campaign.

They have not felt the need for a campaign to discredit McConnell.

Still, Senate Democrats have tried to encourage internal GOP division, pushing the theme of how often the Republicans, with McConnell's approval, have backed the losing establishment figure in primaries.

"Mitch McConnell has lost seven primaries this year, including two sitting members of his caucus, and his handpicked candidate in his own state. Republicans who succeeded against him made the same argument that Democrats will be making this fall: He's the reason we're in this mess in the first place," Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said.

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