It looks like things are about to get pretty interesting for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in his 2014 re-election bid. Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin has decided to offer himself up as a primary challenger in the Bluegrass State, and it looks like McConnell is about to get a pretty undiluted taste of what's been making House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) life a "living hell" lately.
Yesterday, the National Review's Katrina Trinko reported that Bevin -- then "on the cusp" of announcing his run -- had been the target of much cajoling, and later, threats, from the McConnell camp:
“Mitch McConnell’s people reached out to Matt for several months through all different avenues trying to convince him not to run,” the adviser close to Bevin tells National Review Online. “They can pretend like they’re not afraid, they can call him a nuisance, but they were desperate not to have him. Because they are scared.”
“First they tried to threaten him,” the source added, “and then they tried to dangle shiny political prizes.”
McConnell, through campaign manager Jesse Benton, issued the standard denials, telling Trinko that no one from his camp had ever said anything to Bevin. He went on to allege that if anyone had cautioned Bevin against a run, it was "people from Matt's life" who were "desperately trying to prevent Matt from making a serious mistake." The McConnell campaign, Benton told Trinko, had a wealth of opposition material to use on Bevin.
If so, that would be a huge step forward for McConnell's crack opposition research team, in terms of professionalism. Previously, those guys have looked like they were planning to get by on the bare minimum in 2014. Based upon what was learned from the pair of eavesdroppers who secretly taped a McConnell campaign meeting back in April, their signature achievement was reading a book written by Ashley Judd, a presumed Democratic competitor at that point. It also seemed as though the researchers hadn't dug up much about Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is running instead. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza remarked, "The lack of good opposition research on Grimes then is by far the most important thing revealed in this McConnell tape."
Meanwhile, it sure sounds like Bevin, at least, has worked out his opening argument. Trinko reports that the Bevin campaign is preparing to levy the "Republican In Name Only," or RINO, charge at McConnell, putting him on the hook for taking donations from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and for his previous support of comprehensive immigration reform bills. (McConnell's support for such measures has waned of late, of course -- he was a no vote on the Senate's recent immigration bill.)
The campaign will also highlight McConnell's support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Here, McConnell may have already offered the nascent Bevin campaign a bit of gift with his first attack ad, which calls his challenger "Bailout Bevin." This wasn't the smartest tactic, given that McConnell once termed the TARP bailouts "one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate."
Looming the largest, however, are McConnell's votes to raise the debt ceiling -- Bevin is apparently one of those "bath salts caucus" types that believes debt ceiling hostage-taking and pushing the envelope on default and economic collapse constitute quality governance.
During his official announcement on Wednesday that he would run in the primary, Bevin vowed to be "the biggest nuisance" that McConnell has faced.
That bar, of course, is set pretty low. Dating back to 1984, McConnell has never failed to win less than 79 percent of the vote in a primary contest (he was unopposed in 2002). But there may be some ripeness in the air in 2014. The Wall Street Journal reports that "a dozen or so tea-party groups in the state released a letter Monday questioning other conservatives for endorsing the Senate minority leader, blasting what they deem Mr. McConnell’s 'progressive liberal voting record'":
In an open letter released Monday, the United Kentucky Tea Party criticized Mr. McConnell for supporting every increase in the debt ceiling under former President George W. Bush, the 2008 Wall Street rescue, a pair of controversial free-trade agreements and the last immigration overhaul in 1986. They even blasted his support for a tax bill he helped negotiate that froze Bush-era tax rates for everyone who makes less than $400,000.
“Sen. McConnell’s Progressive Liberal voting record, his absolute iron-fisted rule over the Republican Party in Kentucky and his willingness to roll over and cede power to President Obama and the liberals in Washington prove that he is no friend to the American people or the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” the tea party groups said in their letter.
Still, this doesn't constitute much of a threat to McConnell. As the WSJ reports, this faction's "total membership comprises no more than 1,000 Kentuckians." The more interesting development is that some of the more influential organizations in the conservative movement seem open to Bevin's candidacy. Club For Growth president Chris Chocola said in a statement, "The Club for Growth PAC met with Matt Bevin many months ago, and we’d like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Senator McConnell on the issues.” Chocola went on to promise to "watch Kentucky’s Senate race...over the coming months to determine if our involvement is warranted."
The Jim DeMint-founded Senate Conservatives Fund has expressed an interest in Bevin as well. In a statement released today, Executive Director Matt Hoskins writes:
"Mitch McConnell has cut deals with President Obama to raise the debt limit, increase taxes, and fund Obamacare and we believe Republicans in Kentucky deserve a chance to elect a true conservative who will fight for their values. Kentucky Republicans would also benefit from having a more electable candidate than Mitch McConnell. He's unpopular in Kentucky and could lose the race and cost Senate Republicans the majority.
"We're open to supporting Matt Bevin's campaign and will be waiting to see if the grassroots in Kentucky unite behind him. The only way to defeat Mitch McConnell is to inspire the grassroots to rise up and fight for their freedoms. We will also be watching to see if Mitch McConnell debates the issues or if he conducts a dirty smear campaign. If McConnell doesn't respect the voters enough to defend his own record, he doesn't deserve to be in the Senate."
Of course, the last time the Senate Conservatives Fund was mucking about in Kentucky's Senate races, it was backing Rand Paul's candidacy. Speaking of: at the moment, Paul is sticking with McConnell, but he's not trying to discourage Bevin either.
Pop some corn.
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