On Tuesday, the Senate Conservatives Fund called for the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner. Now the SCF, originally founded by Sen. Jim DeMint and run by a close DeMint associate, has launched the harshest attack yet on its No. 1 target, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In a new ad based in part on supposition, misleading reporting, questionable assertions and a single (erroneously cited) poll, the SCF likens McConnell's leadership of the Senate to Internal Revenue Service harassment of conservatives.
"Bullying. Threats. Intimidation," the ad begins. "The IRS? No. Try Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader. That's right. Mitch McConnell is trying to bully and intimidate conservatives just like the IRS is." (The full script of the ad is below.)
The ad says McConnell "tried to silence conservatives, calling them traitors." It offers no evidence that McConnell called conservatives traitors but is apparently referring to a report from Glenn Beck last October in which Beck, citing an anonymous source, said McConnell, in a private meeting with other senators, denounced some of the outside groups working against McConnell's re-election in Kentucky. Beck conceded that McConnell did not actually use the word "traitor," but, in Beck's words, "that's what everybody [in the meeting] heard." Beck said his source did not remember whatever word McConnell actually used to describe his adversaries.
Nevertheless, on the basis of one anonymously-sourced mention from Beck — one in which the radio host specifically said the word "traitor" was not used — the SCF ad says McConnell "called [conservatives] traitors."
There's more. The full text of the "traitor" sentence is: "Mitch McConnell tried to silence conservatives, calling them traitors who he 'wants to punch in the nose' for criticizing his liberal votes." The ad sources the "punch in the nose" allegation to a Breitbart News story from last November. The report said that in an Oct. 30 fundraising conference call arranged by Karl Rove's Crossroads group, McConnell told wealthy donors "that the Tea Party movement, in his view, is 'nothing but a bunch of bullies' that he plans to 'punch … in the nose.' "
The call was recorded. Listening to the entire recording makes clear that McConnell was not talking about "the Tea Party" but was instead specifically venting against two groups that had driven the recent government shutdown and opposed McConnell's re-election bid: the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation (now run by Jim DeMint). Here is a portion of McConnell's remarks:
There's a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund that was set up initially by Jim DeMint, who used to be a colleague of mine, and they are run by a group of people who make a living off of misleading their supporters and trying to convince them that if things don't go well, it’s the Republicans' fault and not the Democrats'. So let's use this last example [the government shutdown]. This strategy, basically ginned up by Heritage Action, the 501(c)(4) of the Heritage Foundation, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, was led by people who misled their supporters into believing the Democratic president and Democratic Senate were actually going to go along with defunding Obamacare if we shut down the government. Of course it was nonsense. And didn't work. And then when it didn't work, they blamed not the Democrats but the Republicans.
McConnell's observations continued in that vein for quite a while; he was clearly unhappy with the groups that had pushed the shutdown strategy and were trying to oust him. Near the end of the call, McConnell said he believed most of the funding for SCF and Heritage Action "is coming from small donors off the Internet and direct mail who are being lied to in order to raise that money. And then 100 percent of the money is being spent [against] Republicans, not Democrats." McConnell concluded:
As long as they want to keep lying to people, and stealing their money, and spending it in counterproductive ways, I guess they can do it. But what I'm doing in my state is I'm telling these people the truth. I'm standing up to the bullies, punching them right in the nose, and telling them the truth … They need to be stood up to, just like standing up to a bully, punch them right in the nose, and that's the way to win.
So McConnell did in fact talk about punching people in the nose, but it was the SCF — the maker of the new ad — and not the Tea Party, and certainly not the conservative grass roots.
The new Senate Conservatives Fund ad goes on to charge that McConnell "told other conservatives they'd get the 'death penalty' for opposing him." It cites as evidence a National Review story from last November which reported that, "Some Republicans in Kentucky who flirted with working for his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, were told by the McConnell allies that they would get the 'death penalty.' " So there is some basis for the charge. But the National Review report says McConnell's "allies" made the threat, while the ad presents it as a quote from McConnell himself, which it is not.
Next, the ad asks why McConnell is doing such terrible things to conservatives. "Because Mitch McConnell is desperate," the ad says. "Polling shows conservative Matt Bevin is more electable than Mitch McConnell, who is headed for defeat in November." The ad cites a National Review poll from Feb. 3, 2013 -- a year ago -- which says that McConnell primary challenger Matt Bevin is "outperforming McConnell" against the Democrat in the race, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
It appears SCF got the date wrong; the poll was actually a Rasmussen survey released on Feb. 3 of this year. And the poll does show Bevin leading Grimes by four percentage points, while McConnell and Grimes are tied. At the same time, the Bluegrass Poll, done by four Kentucky newspapers and televisions stations, shows both Republicans losing to Grimes, McConnell by four points and Bevin by five. And among Republicans, McConnell has a lead over Bevin that is likely well over 20 percentage points -- hardly a number that would support an electability claim.
Other allegations in the ad are not so much technically wrong as grossly misinterpreted. For example, the ad says McConnell "worked with Joe Biden to pass a $600 billion fiscal cliff tax hike." That apparently refers to the end of 2012, when all of the Bush tax cuts were set to expire -- which would have been a massive tax increase for all Americans -- and McConnell played a key role in a final deal that made permanent almost all of those cuts and raised taxes on higher earners considerably less than Democrats, who had just won the White House and control of the Senate, were demanding. So the "$600 billion tax hike" avoided, in the face of significant Democratic opposition, a much larger tax hike.
The ad also says McConnell has "voted to raise the debt limit 10 times," with the screen listing votes between 1997 and 2013. Some were votes in which Republicans, McConnell among them, voted unanimously to raise the debt ceiling. One, on March 16, 2006, was a vote in which Jim DeMint himself voted to raise the debt ceiling. But the SCF ad claims the votes show that McConnell's "ideology is power."
Then the ad says McConnell "even joined Harry Reid in opposing Ted Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare." That's an oft-told story, but most people who have followed it know that McConnell is not Reid's ally on Obamacare. They also know that many very conservative senators opposed Cruz's effort not because they approved of Obamacare, and not because they were allied with Harry Reid, but because they believed the Cruz plan was impossible and self-defeating.
Finally, there is the subject with which the ad begins and ends: the IRS. "If [McConnell] wants to act like the IRS, he can get a job with the IRS," the ad says. Anyone who has listened to McConnell on the subject of the IRS knows that he has been calling out the Obama administration on its harassment of conservatives for quite a while. No, the Senate does not have as many hearings on the IRS matter as the House does, because Democrats control the Senate. But to suggest that McConnell is somehow aligned with the IRS in the matter, or behaves like the IRS — an assertion based on the dubious accusations discussed above — just doesn't make sense. Is that really what the Senate Conservatives Fund would have conservatives to believe?
Matt Hoskins, the former DeMint aide who now runs the SCF, defends the ad and the detailed accusations in it. Yes, McConnell called his adversaries "traitors," or something quite close to that. And yes, McConnell threatened to punch conservatives in the nose. And yes, McConnell's tactics are worse than the IRS. And so on.
Hoskins says he has spoken to two senators who verified the "traitor" story. As for the "punch in the nose" accusation, Hoskins says that was clearly directed at conservatives, even though McConnell was speaking specifically about the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is, after all, trying to knock him out of office. "When he's attacking the Senate Conservatives Fund, he's attacking conservatives," says Hoskins. "He will attack anybody who stands in his way of being re-elected."
And the IRS? "The stuff he does would make the IRS blush," Hoskins says. "He invented political intimidation." Later, Hoskins sent a formal statement from SCF:
Mitch McConnell has been very clear that he believes the Senate Conservatives Fund and those who support us are traitors. He does not dispute this and even made the laughable accusation that we were collaborating with Harry Reid's super PAC. Mitch McConnell is obsessed with SCF because he's afraid our grassroots members will defeat him. It's why he has used IRS-like political tactics to intimidate and silence us. He forced the party to blacklist private companies do business with us, he bullied our bookkeeper, and he said we should be punched in the nose.
Given the depth of animosity on both sides, it's likely the latest ad will not be the low point of the race. The primary is still more than three months away, and there will be plenty more Republican blood spilled before then. The new SCF ad is just one more step on the way down.
The complete text of the new ad:
Bullying. Threats. Intimidation.
Try Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.
Mitch McConnell is trying to bully and intimidate conservatives just like the IRS is.
Mitch McConnell tried to silence conservatives, calling them traitors, who he "wants to punch in the nose" for criticizing his liberal votes.
And McConnell told other conservatives they'd get the "death penalty" for opposing him.
McConnell even tried to intimidate conservative Matt Bevin to stop him from running.
Because Mitch McConnell is desperate.
Polling shows conservative Matt Bevin is more electable than Mitch McConnell, who is headed for defeat in November.
McConnell is unpopular in Kentucky because he doesn't stand for anything. His ideology is power.
It's why McConnell has voted to raise the debt limit 10 times.
And why he worked with Joe Biden to pass a $600 billion fiscal cliff tax hike.
McConnell even joined Harry Reid in opposing Ted Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare.
Send a message to Mitch McConnell today.
If he wants to vote like a Democrat, he can become a Democrat.
And if he wants to act like the IRS, he can get a job with the IRS.
But don't try to fool conservatives by pretending you're one of us, Senator McConnell.