Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has remained silent on whether he supports President Obama’s calls for military strikes against Syria, saying only that he wants more information as he tries to calibrate his views with those of his colleagues in Washington and voters back home in Kentucky.
But his refusal to take a stand has left an opening for Matt Bevin, a tea party-backed candidate challenging Mr. McConnell for his Senate seat in 2014, who hopes the Syria issue will inject energy into his underdog candidacy.
“Why would we be jumping into the middle of something that we have no control over, that we don’t intend to influence the outcome of. Why are we doing this?” Mr. Bevin said in an interview with cn.|2 Pure Politics. “We have no business being militarily involved in Syria. I couldn’t be more clear on that.”
Even as lawmakers struggle with whether to back Mr. Obama, GOP primary challengers back home seem unified in rejecting anything that would aid the president’s bid for strikes.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide reported this week that Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she is against military action. She is challenging incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, Wyoming Republican, who has said that “foreign policy needs to be thought out and less reactionary.”
In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham has called not only for strikes but for a more robust policy supporting the rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad — leaving openings for his challengers.
Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of the Citadel, said she will “stand with the people of South Carolina against Obama’s failed leadership and against military action in Syria.”
Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, said that she doesn’t “understand Cheney’s position given her background” — alluding to her fervent supporter of her father’s record, including the war in Iraq.
“That said, tea party activists are pretty uniformly against any intervention in Syria, which is likely a reflection of their libertarian leanings,” Ms. Duffy said. “Mace, Bevin and Cheney are all counting on the support of these tea party activists both to win their primaries and to raise money. It is hard to see how supporting military intervention helps them with their base.”
Polls show that Americans in general — including among Republicans, though by a smaller margin — do not support a military strike in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons last month, which Obama administration says killed more than 1,400 people in a suburb outside Damascus.
Mr. Graham said he knows his decision is unpopular with many of his South Carolina constituents, but said he believes major national security issues are at stake and U.S. failure to act could ignite a regional Middle East conflict.
As minority leader in the Senate, Mr. McConnell’s absence from the debate is striking. The other three top party-caucus leaders have all voiced support. So far, Mr. McConnell has confined his comments to saying he wants more information — a theme he repeated even after a meeting Tuesday with Mr. Obama.
“I appreciate the president’s briefing today at the White House and would encourage him to continue updating the American people,” Mr. McConnell said. “While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region.”
Known as a dealmaker, Mr. McConnell has been on the sidelines in some of the biggest fights this year, watching as four other Republicans — Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake and Mr. Graham — spearheaded the party’s push for immigration reform, and as Mr. McCain cut a deal with Democrats over presidential appointees.