Tea Party activists in Kentucky have been privately talking about a conservative challenge to Mitch McConnell since Election Day in November. McConnell’s aides knew about these machinations and tried to head off a primary.
Even before November, McConnell tapped Jesse Benton, a longtime adviser to the Paul family, as his campaign manager. McConnell held private, one-on-one meetings with key Tea Party leaders around the state, some of whom had never spent such extended time with the Senate Republican Leader. After supporting Rand Paul’s opponent in the 2010 GOP primary, he actively courted the junior senator. When McConnell, along with Vice President Joe Biden, reached the compromise that averted the fiscal cliff but also raised taxes on the wealthy earlier this year, McConnell aides immediately reached out to conservative activists in the state to explain the agreement, emphasizing that the senator had stopped what could have been an increase in taxes for most working Americans.
It didn’t work.
On Wednesday, Matthew Bevin, a millionaire Louisville businessman and investor, will hold a three-city announcement tour to declare he is taking on Kentucky’s senior senator. One of the top aides for his campaign will be Sarah Durand, who stepped down as the head of the Louisville Tea Party to help Bevin defeat McConnell. The United Kentucky Tea Party, a coalition of Tea Party groups around the state, are also expected to endorse Bevin when he enters the race, although it’s not clear yet if national groups like the Club for Growth will back him.
Bevin, according to advisers, will attempt to cast McConnell as insufficiently conservative, blasting him for voting to increase the debt ceiling repeatedly as a senator, supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout and initially opposing the candidacy of Paul. He will also argue that the senator’s approval ratings are so low that Kentucky Republicans are risking control of the seat by nominating McConnell. In a state President Barack Obama lost by 23 points, a traditional Republican will defeat a traditional Democrat, according to Bevin aides, but voters in Kentucky are tired of McConnell, they say, and might opt for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky secretary of state, just to get rid of the man who has represented the state in the Senate since 1985.
And they will question one of the core arguments McConnell is making on the campaign trail against Grimes, namely that Kentucky does not want to replace a member with huge clout in the chamber with a freshman.
“He was the minority leader when the $700 billion stimulus bill passed. Where was all this clout then?” Durand said in an interview.
McConnell aides blasted Bevin immediately upon rumors of his candidacy.
“While it is sad to see someone who claims to be a Republican doing Barack Obama's bidding, his campaign is nothing more than a nuisance. Mitch McConnell will never waiver is his fight for our Kentucky values,” said Benton, who added Bevin was “not a Kentucky Conservative.”
McConnell, with nearly $10 million in his campaign account and long history of success in both elections and legislative debates in Washington, is a clear favorite to win the primary. His allies are already casting Bevin as a political neophyte with little leadership experience in the state. McConnell aides are also highlighting Bevin's New England roots. He moved to Kentucky in 1999 after growing up in rural New Hampshire.
But having an organized challenge to McConnell from his own party distinguishes the Republican leader from his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who in 2010 also faced a difficult election with voters in his state not excited about him.
Reid not only avoided a prominent Democratic Party opponent, but also faced a Republican opponent (Sharron Angle) who the GOP itself did not consider a strong candidate.
McConnell now not only has a primary challenger, but Grimes was a prized recruit of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She was elected statewide in 2011 and has politically-defensible positions on Obamacare (she has never expressed strong support for the law while also opposing its repeal) and coal (she opposes President Obama’s climate-change proposals) for a conservative-leaning state like Kentucky.
McConnell, to be sure, will not be blindsided by a primary challenge the way other longtime GOP senators, like Indiana's Richard Lugar and Utah's Bob Bennett, have been in the last two election cycles. McConnell not only has been actively courting conservatives in Kentucky, but has not cast the kind of obvious vote that would hurt him. He opposed the immigration-reform bill that more than two-thirds of the Senate backed last month and is acknowledged by both parties to be one of the leading figures in stalling President Obama’s agenda on Capitol Hill.
“He saw what happened to me; he saw what happened to Lugar; he saw what happened to Lisa Murkowski,” said Trey Grayson, the one-time Kentucky Secretary of State who lost the 2010 U.S. Senate primary there to Paul. “I think he’s put himself in a strong position.”
The race will be a test of the Tea Party’s strength in Kentucky, as well as McConnell’s appeal among Republicans. The state’s Tea Party groups looked for months for a candidate they could rally around, ultimately concluding Bevin, 46, had the right combination of money (he is not expected to pay for his entire race but will self-fund the initial phase of the campaign) and political views.
But outside of the victory of Paul, who had a famous name and a national fundraising base, Tea Party candidates have struggled to win primaries in Kentucky. And Paul himself, looking toward a presidential campaign in 2016, has already endorsed McConnell.