Senate leader McConnell a big loser on Election Day

WASHINGTON - US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell set two top goals for the 2012 election: a Republican takeover of the Senate and the defeat of President Barack Obama.

He achieved neither.

Starting in January, he will be up against a president he tried and failed to bring down, with a Senate minority weaker by two.

"We all had a bad day," said Josh Holmes, chief of staff of McConnell's personal Senate office.

While there is no sign of any immediate threat to his job as minority leader, McConnell is facing intensified criticism from the right, which has seen him for some time as too "establishment."

McConnell blocked much of Obama's agenda the past two years, including his call to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

But some conservatives complained that he was not sufficiently hardline. They were outraged, for example, when he compromised with Obama and agreed to increase the debt limit in 2011 and extend a payroll tax cut.

McConnell is also looking over his shoulder at his own re-election prospects in Kentucky in 2014 and the possibility of a primary challenge from the right, which could limit his flexibility in negotiations over pressing tax and spending issues such as the "fiscal cliff."

To fend off a possible challenge by a candidate backed by the conservative Tea Party movement, McConnell hired Jesse Benton as his campaign manager - a political strategist with Tea Party ties.

"McConnell will be in the middle of a battle for the heart of the party," said James Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "The Republican Party is shifting to the right under his feet. He may not survive."

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