WASHINGTON - The victory last week of a primary candidate in Indiana backed by the Tea Party movement illustrates how closely Republican hopes for a majority in the Senate are tied to candidates who pledge to infuse that chamber with the deep-seated conservatism that has been the hallmark of the House since the Republicans gained control in 2010.
Richard E. Mourdock - who defeated Senator Richard G. Lugar, a six-term incumbent - promises to bring an uncompromising ideology to Capitol Hill if Mourdock prevails in November. He is not the only Senate candidate who contends that Senate Republicans are badly in need of new blood.
In Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas, Republican Senate candidates are vying for the mantle of Tea Party outsider. A number of them say they would press an agenda that is generally to the right of the minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and that they would demand a bigger policy role for the Senate’s staunch conservatives.
Some say they have not decided whether they would support McConnell, who could find himself contending with the type of fractious rank and file that has vexed House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
“We need to shake up the Republicans,’’ said Sarah Steelman, the Missouri state treasurer, who is seeking her party’s nomination to run against Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. Asked if that meant new leadership in the Senate, Steelman replied, “Possibly.’’
John Brunner, another Missouri candidate, said conservatives need to have a louder voice in Senate leadership. “When you bring more people to the team, it raises the bar for everyone,’’ he said.
Referring to McConnell, he added, “There could be people up there who could be sputtering now who could take it up a notch.’’
Representative Todd Akin, a third Missouri Senate hopeful, said, “I haven’t made any commitments to anybody, and they haven’t made very many commitments to me either.’’
Deb Fischer, who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination in Nebraska, said, “I don’t think anything is automatic.’’
McConnell’s leadership does not appear to be in jeopardy. Aides to McConnell say he has already secured enough votes for his reelection as leader, regardless of the November results. And supporters say such threats have surfaced in the past, only to fizzle after Election Day.
Rand Paul of Kentucky made headlines in 2010 while running for the Senate when he declined to say whether he would back McConnell for leader after McConnell supported another Republican in the primary. Ultimately, McConnell was unanimously reelected leader, and his standing has remained solid among Senate Republicans even as he has faced sniping from some on the right who say he is too much of a Washington insider.
McConnell showed no concern.
“In November, if the American people give us the ability to set the agenda in the Senate, I’m confident our conference will have broad unity around our efforts to repeal Obamacare, reduce the size and scope of government, and prevent job-killing tax hikes,’’ he said in a statement.
McConnell has already made adjustments. He recently enlisted Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a freshman elected with Tea Party backing, to lead efforts to coordinate the Republican messages and agenda in the Senate and the House with the party’s presidential nominee. A spokesman for McConnell, Don Stewart, said McConnell was exploring joining Mourdock on the campaign trail.
But pressure remains. Several Republican freshmen in the Senate - among them Paul, Johnson, Mike Lee of Utah, and Marco Rubio of Florida - under the tutelage of the Tea Party kingmaker Jim DeMint of South Carolina, have laid the groundwork for a more conservative path in the Senate.
The stakes are considerable. The country faces what Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, has called a “fiscal cliff’’ on Jan. 1, when the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are set to expire and across-the-board spending cuts of more than $1 trillion are to take effect. If a bipartisan agreement cannot be reached before the end of the year, nearly $8 trillion in deficit reduction could go into force in a sudden rush.
But McConnell’s room to maneuver is shrinking with the rising calls against compromise and the diminishing ranks of Republican deal makers.
McConnell has been trying to keep the right flank at bay, voting against a bipartisan highway bill, for example, that conservative members disliked.