There’s a new dividing line in the conservative movement—between a majority who’d like to win against President Obama, and a handful who’d like to win some scalps. It was on vivid display last week during the Senate debt-ceiling vote. Republicans were looking to avoid a fight they were destined to lose. Democrats had the votes to pass the bill with a simple majority, meaning they also would have owned their president’s refusal to tackle the debt.
In walked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to demand a 60-vote majority to pass the increase. Mr. Cruz has subsequently claimed he alone was attempting to get Mr. Obama to agree to spending reforms. Odd, given that he didn’t publicly present any reforms to attach to the debt bill. He didn’t take to the floor to escalate the issue. To the contrary, he agreed to speed up the vote.
There was only one point to Mr. Cruz’s action: To force Republican colleagues, in particular Mr. McConnell, into voting “yes” to proceed to the actual bill. Mr. Cruz has admitted as much, bragging to radio host Mark Levin the next day that his colleagues’ “heads exploded” because he’d “forced” them to “tell the truth”—namely, that they “wanted” to give Barack Obama a “blank check to raise our debt.” Never mind that every Republican, once past the Cruz show vote, opposed the increase on final passage.
Members of Congress routinely cook up situations that force opposing parties to take “tough votes.” This may be the first time a senator did so solely to damage his own party. It may also be the first time a senator has used the privileges afforded him under Senate rules to benefit a small and coordinated band of conservative campaign groups. Their No. 1 target is Mr. McConnell, who Mr. Cruz hasn’t forgiven for failing to embrace his damaging shutdown.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the Denton County Republican Party dinner, Feb. 1. Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The breadth and coordination of these groups was striking. First came Heritage Action—which was created in 2010 by the Heritage Foundation, which is itself run by Cruz-promoter Jim DeMint —explaining it would mark down in its legislative scorecard any senator who voted to move beyond Mr. Cruz’s procedural hurdle. Within minutes of Mr. McConnell voting to proceed, his opponent in the Kentucky primary, Matt Bevin, had tweeted out that his rival had given “Obama another blank check.”
The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which is backing Mr. Bevin, also immediately blasted Mr. McConnell for voting “with the Democrats to advance yet another debt limit increase.” The group, founded by Mr. DeMint and now run by a former DeMint staffer, released a Web video that was already trashing Mr. McConnell on the debt ceiling. The blog site Red State, on cue, praised the ad, instructed readers to “Send Senate Conservatives Fund As Much As You Can NOW,” and also complained that Mr. McConnell had given the president a “blank check.” The Madison Project, also backing Mr. Bevin, put out a mirror release: “Mitch McConnell Votes to Give Obama a Blank Check.”
On Thursday, Mr. Cruz told me his debt procedure was a matter of principle, though he acknowledged an “additional benefit” was the “transparency” he’d forced on Republicans. He told me he had not “spoken to anyone at SCF in months.” However, when I asked if anyone on his staff had been in contact with outside groups about his debt-ceiling procedure, he acknowledged: “My staff periodically speaks with people across the conservative movement.” He added, “But the debt ceiling vote occurred suddenly and it was a surprise to everybody when Republican leadership asked every Republican senator to consent to letting Harry Reid raise the debt ceiling.”
In addition to Mr. McConnell, conservative groups are targeting senators John Cornyn (Texas), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). While the primary challengers aren’t likely to win (Mr. Bevin is trailing by 25 points), the attacks are hurting incumbents’ general-election prospects.
None of this is about substance. If political principle were at stake, one would assume these outside groups—so keen on purity—would have already dropped Mr. Bevin. It came out recently that he had once praised the very bank bailouts that he has been slapping Mr. McConnell for supporting.
Mr. McConnell holds the same positions as Mr. Cruz on spending, ObamaCare, gun control, etc. His sin? He has refused to ask Republicans to run into the Obama fixed bayonets, a la the Cruz shutdown. Groups like SCF and Heritage Action want to replace the leadership with more of their own kamikaze caucus. They also understand there are far more fundraising dollars and media attention in attacking fellow conservatives.
Republicans have fumbled their last two Senate takeover chances, mostly thanks to infighting. But this latest movement—to take down incumbents over tactics—is a new low. If the GOP remains a minority, this will be why.