Kentucky Conservatives Standing Behind McConnell Despite Debt Ceiling Vote

Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the dozen Republicans to vote for cloture this week on the bill to raise the debt ceiling, a vote which Tea Party and other groups backing his primary opponent Matt Bevin have been roundly condemning since it was cast in the hopes that it would be ammunition against McConnell in the primary race.. So far, though, McConnell’s fellow Kentucky conservatives seem to be sticking with him:

With the financial markets watching anxiously, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a dramatic last-minute move that looked to many like self-sacrifice.

McConnell cast one of the deciding votes to help overcome a potential GOP filibuster on the way to approving a year-long debt ceiling extension on Wednesday afternoon.

Some saw the move as risky, a political liability that would mobilize his conservative critics and hurt him in the May primary against tea party challenger Matt Bevin.

The outrage on the right was immediate: “Kentucky deserves better,” tweeted the Senate Conservatives Fund. “Once again, #McConnell caves to the left,” declared Bevin, on his Twitter account. It wasn’t long before the political oddsmakers in Washington were speculating about just how much damage McConnell had inflicted on his chances for reelection the dramatic debt ceiling vote.

Back in Kentucky, the answer appears to be none.

“The race has already been defined,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Warren County GOP and a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. “McConnell has his critics, and there is nothing he could do to make them happy. But this vote didn’t make him any new enemies.”

Even some of those critics concede that the debt limit vote — while packed with Washington political drama — is unlikely to prompt a massive shift in support by Kentucky’s Republican primary voters away from the incumbent.

“If you’re looking for a straw that is going to break the camel’s back, the debt ceiling vote won’t be it,” said David Adams, a Kentucky tea party activist who has made a hobby of working to unseat McConnell and helped recruit Bevin to run. “It’s not going to be the big turning point. It’s the latest in a long line of things he’s done to betray Kentucky’s conservatives, but it’s not the big turning point. ”

McConnell is thought to be especially vulnerable this year — both in the primary as well as in the general election, in which he is expected to be challenged by a well-funded Democrat in Alison Lundergan Grimes — and recent polling shows that more than half of the state disapproves of the job he has done, including a staggering 33 percent of Kentucky Republicans.

But conservative Republican operatives — the kind of voters the tea party must either convert or persuade to stay home on Election Day if Bevin is to mount a serious challenge to McConnell — say they are unmoved.

“Matt Bevin is a good guy. I just don’t think Matt’s going to be a winner, and certainly not because of the debt ceiling,” said Jim Weise, a longtime GOP operative in Hardin County who knows both Bevin and McConnell. “Frankly, I think Matt is going to get his clock cleaned.”

In interviews on Thursday, GOP operatives in Washington and conservative voters in Kentucky said that while McConnell’s help shepherding the passage of a clean debt ceiling bill won’t ingratiate him with his critics on the right, it’s unlikely to be a game-changer in his Senate primary race against Bevin — in which polls show him sitting on a comfortable lead — in large part because it fits the already established campaign narrative.

“If Senator McConnell were very worried about conservatives back home jumping ship, then he wouldn’t have voted for the debt ceiling increase,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill operative. “He knew he could weather this one. He could afford to take this bullet.”

Based on all the available polling, that assessment is entirely correct. While General Election polling seems to indicate a potentially rough race against Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, those same polls have all show McConnell with crushing leads over Bevin. That, combined with the fact that McConnell’s campaign war chest and the money likely to be spent on his behalf by establishment GOP groups, makes it highly unlikely that Bevin will be able to close the gap between him and the Minority Leader in the time between now and the May 20th primary.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    I don’t know if you ever glance at any of the websites where Tea Partiers hang out, but if you want to see irrationality in full screech, it’s there. The latest seems to be that if McConnell wins the primary, they’ll work actively to support Grimes, because McConnell is no different from Harry Reid.

  2. bill says:

    he’ll win, this round of debt ceiling drama is all on the dems- they did it and someone will have to pay for it.

  3. ounceoflogic says:

    @CSK: Your characterization of the Tea Party is very similar to o’bama’s. Saying “Tea Partiers” are irrational does not make it so, unless you think it is irrational to want our Constitution and our country preserved. McConnell has allowed the Democrats to control the process. He pretends to be a conservative when running for office and then betrays conservative values at Every Opportunity once elected. McConnell is a traitor in my book – a traitor to those who elected him, a traitor to his party and a traitor to his country. He should not be leader of the senate, and yes… if my senator is going to act like a Democrat then I would prefer he or she to actually be a Democrat.

  4. ounceoflogic says:

    @bill: The debt ceiling is not “all on the Dems”. It could have been, but it isn’t. Republicans, led by McConnell and Boehner, approved a clean bill without offering any resistance. That to me is not an “opposition” party.

  5. Tillman says:

    @ounceoflogic: So what’s your take on paying credit card bills? Good idea, or license to spend more money?

  6. Grewgills says:

    This vote hurts him in the primaries and helps him in the general. It signals which challenger he fears more.