It’s not only in Kentucky where Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge.
The U.S. Senate minority leader, who has to get past a tea party challenger to get to the general election where the Democratic opponent is gaining traction, isn’t getting much love from Iowa Republicans who hope to help the GOP to win back control of the Senate in this fall’s mid-term elections.
Sam Clovis, a retired Air Force colonel and college professor, doesn’t mince words when asked whether he’ll support McConnell, a five–term senator who has been minority leader since 2007.
“I think we need a change in leadership in the United States Senate,” he said at a Republican forum in Ida Grove back in November. “I’m going to go onto the floor of the Senate and make sure that vote goes to a leader other than the one we have right now. That’s the first thing.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, Clovis told a tea party gathering in December that “If Mitch McConnell still wants to be the leader, he’s not going to have my vote.”
Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker has been a bit more nuanced. When asked about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, during a Tea Party Express interview, Whitaker said he favors repeal.
“But who the leader is in the Senate is going to make a big difference,” Whitaker said, “and if it’s someone like Sen. McConnell from Kentucky I’m not sure we’re going to have the same opportunities to advance a conservative agenda including repealing Obamacare that we would with a true conservative leader.”
While it might seem rash to be disrespecting the man who could have a say in which races the GOP senatorial campaign committee commits resources and who will make committee assignments after the election, neither Whitaker nor Clovis see it that way.
“Matt has never met Mitch McConnell and hasn’t committed to voting for anyone,” Whitaker spokesman Jason Klindt said. “He wants to meet and talk with any candidate for leadership. He will be looking for a conservative leader who can get things done.”
“I don’t know that there’s any danger” in Clovis distancing himself from McConnell said campaign manager Chuck Laudner.
“Mitch McConnell doesn’t have a vote in Iowa,” he said. “The base of this party, by and large, wants change. What’s going on inside the party is not working. So you can’t say ‘I’ll vote for McConnell’ because that says more of the same.”
They may be right that there’s little danger in being critical of the Senate GOP caucus leader, said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science. McConnell, said Hagle, who worked in the Bush administration, has taken a lot of heat from the more tea party-oriented candidates over a variety of actions he has taken.
“I don’t know if risky is the right word, but it’s probably not the wisest choice of action,” Hagle said.
“Of course,” he added, “you don’t have to worry about bad committee assignments if you don’t get yourself elected and you can’t get elected if you don’t get the nomination.”
Clovis and Whitaker may see their anti-McConnell comments as increasing their chances of getting then nomination.
“It’s not just political posturing if they see that McConnell has been a problem advancing the agenda they are running on,” Hagle said.
That’s the strategy, according to Laudner, who said Clovis repudiation of McConnell is an applause line.
“People instinctively get it -- what kind of a Republican, conservative you are,” he said.
It’s one of the top three questions Clovis gets asked, Laudner said. The answer says everything about the candidate.
“It tells the Republican voter what kind of senator you will be, whether you are someone they can trust to go in there and do the right thing,” Laudner said. “You can’t dodge it. If you dodge this one, the rest is a dodge.”
Clovis leans toward Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who he will campaign with later this month, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Whitaker hasn’t committed to supporting anyone for the top GOP post, Klindt said.
“He wants to meet and talk with any candidate for leadership,” Klindt said. “He will be looking for a conservative leader who can get things done.”
GOP candidates Mark Jacobs and Scott Schaben say it’s too early to make a decision whether to support McConnell.
“Mark is focused on his June primary and then winning the November general election, as is Sen. McConnell,” said Jacobs spokeswoman Alissa Ohl said. “Senate Republican leadership is a question for after the elections.”
While he didn’t commit to voting for McConnell, Jacobs did show some respect.
“Mark has great respect for Sen. McConnell leading the united Republican charge on repealing Obamacare and Harry Reid's job-killing agenda,” Ohl added.
Schaben says he’s focused on his own race.“If (McConnell) is still there when I arrive in D.C., I’ll address it at that time,” Schaben said. “I hope this doesn’t sound coy; just being honest.”