As it stands, many consider the right flank in the Senate to consist of Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and David Vitter of Louisiana. But if Republicans have a great day on Nov. 2, they could be adding Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Alaska’s Joe Miller, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Colorado’s Ken Buck, Utah’s Mike Lee, Florida’s Marco Rubio, and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey to their ranks – and potentially others.
Many of the conservative firebrands in the group are affiliated with the Tea Party. They’re all outsiders, many of whom defeated the GOP establishment candidate in their primary elections. Let’s just say it won’t be sleepy in the Senate come 2011.
“The GOP Senate caucus will be the most conservative since at least World War II,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
For conservatives, that sounds pretty good. Some imagine the strengthened numbers of conservatives will form a pivotal block that will move the entire body to the right.
“That’d be good for the Party, more DeMints, more Coburns,” said one conservative GOP operative to The Daily Caller.
But for Republican moderates, the Rand Pauls and Sharron Angles of the world are disconcerting. Some express fear that what they perceive as the candidates’ “radical” views will prove a political liability for the Republican Party.
Angle is “just out of sight with her crazy claims,” said former New York Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate who now works to push the GOP leftward on environmental issues.
One moderate GOP House aide was more blunt in an interview with TheDC. “Dude, I’m terrified. These people are f***ing nuts,” he said.
For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the change in the composition of Senate Republicans may require a change in leadership style. Conservative sources describe McConnell as frequently maneuvering behind the scenes towards moderate goals – especially on spending issues — while avoiding taking a stance on those issues in public.
But two of McConnell’s key lieutenants, Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both lost in primaries to more conservative candidates. A former conservative Senate aide told TheDC that McConnell frequently relied on Bennett and Murkowski to mollify more conservative senators.
Replacing Bennett and Murkowski, in all likelihood, will be Utah’s Mike Lee, who said he’d like to wind-down Social Security, and Alaska’s Joe Miller, who said Medicare might be unconstitutional.
McConnell, considered an extremely savvy infighter, is unlikely to lose his spot as leader of the caucus. “McConnell is a survivor,” said another conservative GOP strategist to TheDC. Instead, he’ll likely move to the right to accommodate the new dynamic, a broad array of sources said.
McConnell is clearly aware of the issue. After the GOP establishment lost its fourth straight primary battle to a conservative outsider (Rubio vs. Charlie Crist in Florida, Miller vs. Murkowski in Alaska, Lee vs. Bennett in Utah and Buck vs. Jane Norton in Colorado), McConnell preemptively stated that he “already [has] the votes to be re-elected as Republican leader, and will be re-elected.”
His office did not respond to a request for comment, but he recently described the incoming GOP caucus as likely to be “a mixture of folks.”
Besides internal Republican politics, a block of very conservative senators will likely shape how the GOP as a whole interacts with President Obama and the Democrats.
For Boehlert, his concern is that some of the candidates likely to win in November may be averse to compromise. “I believe it’s going to be a much closer division” in the number of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, Bohlert said, “and that would require more cooperation if they’re going to accomplish anything.”
Boehlert points to another group of candidates, both moderates and Republicans more connected to the Party establishment, as being “infinitely more important” than the conservatives.
That group could include moderates like Reps. Mike Castle of Delaware and Mark Kirk of Illinois, as well as GOP veterans like Dan Coats in Indiana, Roy Blunt in Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio, who once headed the White House Office of Management and Budget under then-President George W. Bush.
“You would never see them make outrageous statements” like the Sharron Angles and Joe Millers, Boehlert said, adding that their experience will help the Senate focus on solutions to the nation’s most difficult challenges.
Boehlert also pointed to Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who rode a wave of enthusiasm on the part of the Tea Party and other conservative activists, but has made numerous centrist moves since his election. “You’ll see a lot more of that kind of thing,” said Boehlert.
Sabato said the incoming conservatives “will individually have a choice to make. Will they be gadflies or serious legislators?
“There is a role for the gadfly — to question everything. You get a lot of press coverage but very little influence in the Senate. Most will prefer to accomplish something. They can remain true to their principles, hold out for everything, then compromise to get something,” Sabato said.
“Deep gridlock is the likeliest outcome, though maybe Obama and Congress can make common cause on one or two items — though I am hard pressed to think what they are,” Sabato added.
Some conservatives carry visions of the new Senate class making common cause with conservative issues on long-running battles like the estate tax, also sometimes referred to as the “death tax,” and perhaps targeting the funding for federal agencies implementing contentious portions of Obama’s agenda.
In contrast to the moderates, some conservatives even have a fear of their own – that the incoming firebrands, despite all their loud proclamations now, will inevitably be sucked into the same “big government” and high spending patterns they fault the Bush administration and previous Republican majorities for.
Asked what political liabilities he fears the Republicans will face in the next Congress, the first conservative GOP operative said “have we learned our lessons?
“There’s little room for hypocrisy. If Republicans get back into office and start playing the same old game” of fiscal responsibility in rhetoric only, they’ll find themselves quickly in trouble again, he warned.