Sen. Lisa Murkowski's apparent defeat in Alaska's Republican primary isn't just a defeat for the Republican establishment and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which — in keeping with standard practice — backed her renomination.
The Alaska result is above all a blow to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As with the primary defeat of Utah's Bob Bennett in the spring, challenger Joe Miller's likely win replaces a close McConnell confidant with an unaccommodating conservative.
McConnell, since becoming minority leader in 2007, has built his own “kitchen Cabinet,” consisting of two or three official “counsels” — senators, handpicked by him, who attend GOP leadership meetings along with the elected party leadership. Both Bennett and Murkowski are in this inner circle. And both lost their primaries this year to conservatives running against Washington.
Murkowski was one of McConnell's rising stars. He tapped her for his inner circle in her first term, and she also got a spot on the Appropriations Committee. The darling of Alaska's former senior senator, Ted Stevens, Murkowski rocketed through the ranks. This year, she was elected secretary of the Senate Republican Conference, one of the top six leadership roles. After Stevens lost re-election in 2008, McConnell took her under his wing. “Lisa is the new powerhouse in Alaska,” he told Roll Call. “She will fill the vacuum left by Ted.”
And her Senate record resembled Stevens' — while she had a long climb to match the porking prowess of Stevens, her $704 million in earmarks over the past three fiscal years puts her in the same league as the biggest earmarkers. She has a moderate voting record, but she isn't at the left end of the GOP. Ultimately, she is a loyal Republican who isn't terribly ideological. This was the profile for McConnell's “counsels.”
But Joe Miller, the former judge and Army veteran who appears to have beaten her in the primary, pending counting of all absentee ballots, is of a different stripe. Miller is not merely conservative, he's unyielding, supremely self-confident, and self-reliant. He will come to Washington seeing the whole town and its customs — quite possibly including collegiality and tradition of the Senate — as the enemy.
It's the same story in the Utah Senate seat.
Bennett, like Murkowski, is an ideal McConnell lieutenant because he is ideologically flexible — neither a staunch conservative nor one of the party's card-carrying moderates like Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. A profile of Bennett in the Capitol Hill publication the Hill said Bennett was respected for “his persuasive levelheadedness and his lack of a personal political agenda.” The profile described his role as McConnell's first mate: “Bennett usually seconded McConnell's opinion in Republican leadership meetings and was often dispatched to cajole balky Republican senators into taking tough votes.”
Bennett's replacement — former gubernatorial aide Mike Lee — promises to be something beyond just a “balky Republican senator.” Lee's stump speech sounds like a lecture on the Constitution, and how nearly everything Washington does is outside of its legitimate authority. He takes pretty seriously the oath of office to defend the Constitution, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him filibuster a harmless Republican measure that isn't explicitly authorized by Article I, Section 8.
So on one level, trading Bennett for Lee is trading a senator with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 84 percent for one who will be above 98 percent. But more importantly for Capitol Hill dynamics, it's trading a quintessential team player for an inflexible conservative stalwart. Put Miller and Lee in the same chamber, and the legislative calendar could back up worse than the Washington Beltway at rush hour. One Republican operative, comparing these future senators with the upper chamber's current gadflies, said Lee and Miller will make Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn look like lapdogs.
If Miller and Lee set the tone of the incoming freshman class, that could ensure that Colorado's Ken Buck, Nevada's Sharron Angle, and Kentucky's Rand Paul — if they win — never fully assimilate to the Old Boys (and Girls) Club.
Beyond the job difficulties these freshmen could cause for McConnell, this year's Tea Party uprising has left McConnell looking politically weak. His two consiglieres, Murkowski and Bennett, lost primaries, as did Trey Grayson in McConnell's home state of Kentucky. McConnell had groomed Grayson to replace retiring curmudgeon Jim Bunning.
McConnell's office says the leader isn't worried — a larger minority (or possibly a majority) will inevitably mean a tougher lot to wrangle. He'd rather have an unruly 48 seats than a well-behaved 41 seats. We'll see what McConnell says once DeMint has two to five senators to his right.
[CORRECTION: Originally, this column mistakenly described Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader.]
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.