Mitch McConnell On Track To Beat Back Tea Party Challenge

The Tea Party challenge to Mitch McConnell has not exactly gone as planned.

Mitchell McConnell Matt Bevin

Of all the primary challenges that Republican incumbents are facing from Tea Party candidates the one that received the most media attention at least as the beginning was the campaign launched in Kentucky against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. For one thing, it’s not every day that anyone tries to seriously take out a member of their own party’s leadership in a primary, so the mere fact of the primary challenge itself was obviously newsworthy, especially given its seeming potential to undercut McConnell’s bid to become Senate Majority Leader after the midterms. Additionally, while Bevin was a political unknown in Kentucky he entered the race with the backing of pretty much every major Tea Party organization, ranging from FreedomWorks to the Senate Conservatives Fund. McConnell, of course, has been in the Tea Party’s cross hairs for some time now for his perceived deviations from orthodoxy, which usually end up actually being situations where he helped negotiate deals on issues like the debt ceiling and the government shutdown that didn’t give Tea Party everything they wanted. The fact that McConnell has arguably used his power as leader of the Senate minority more effectively, in terms of achieving his party’s agenda, than anyone in recent memory doesn’t seem to matter to them.

For a time it seemed as though Bevin might actually have a shot at becoming a serious challenger to McConnell, but now, with just over two weeks left until the primary, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times notes that Bevin’s campaign has basically fizzled away, and McConnell is pretty much assured of a primary win on May 20th:

LEXINGTON, Ky. — For Matt Bevin, the main challenger in the Republican primary to topple Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the campaign could be boiled down to this, his one chance to try to confront his opponent in person, in the crowded ballroom of a Marriott hotel.

He pushed, shoved and maneuvered close to the senator at a political dinner, only to be elbowed out of the way by Mr. McConnell’s wife, the former labor secretary Elaine L. Chao, and a couple of dexterous campaign aides.

“Pathetic,” Mr. Bevin grumbled.

That may also be a word to describe his once-promising, Tea Party-inspired challenge to unseat one of the most powerful figures in the capital, a man who first won election to the Senate in 1984 and whom Mr. Bevin has tried to portray as an out-of-touch creature of Washington.

Instead, Mr. Bevin, 47, has been forced to defend himself for showing up at a cockfighting rally; for padding his résumé; and for backing the bailout of big banks when he worked as an investment adviser, then calling the rescue “irresponsible” as a candidate.

Mr. McConnell, 72, is running such a confident race that during the recent two-week congressional recess, the dinner here was his only formal campaign event in his home state.

Tea Party groups that have bedeviled the Republican establishment for the past two election cycles — and helped upend Republican ambitions to seize Senate control — had high hopes for Mr. Bevin. And they had set had their sights on the would-be Senate majority leader, whom they have seen as the consummate Washington deal maker, if not a liberal than a liberal enabler. But in many respects, Mr. McConnell seems to be thriving almost in spite of himself, yet another sign that at least for now, the Establishment has struck back

“That’s all right. I was never under any delusion this was going to be easy,” Mr. Bevin said glumly in the hotel parking lot outside the Fayette County Republicans’ Reagan Day Dinner.

It was not supposed to be this way. Mr. Bevin had the backing of prominent Tea Party groups, with the promise of financial and grass-roots support, and was supposed to be able to capitalize on the senator’s low job approval numbers and a general anti-Washington mood.


On the surface, he has cause for worry. A New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April put Mr. McConnell’s approval rating among Kentucky voters at 40 percent, compared with 56 percent for the Democratic governor, Steven L. Beshear. Mr. McConnell and Ms. Grimes were essentially tied, 44 percent to 43 percent, even after millions of dollars had been spent to prop up the senator’s standing and undermine Ms. Grimes.

Mr. McConnell has spent around $12 million fending off Mr. Bevin and going after Ms. Grimes as she lays low, raises money and plots a general election strategy. She has yet to start a real advertising campaign; instead, she is hoarding her $5 million in cash, a significant amount but about half of what Mr. McConnell has.

And for all his troubles, Mr. Bevin refuses to go away and has the money to get him to Primary Day.

Asked if he would help unify Republican voters after the primary, Mr. Bevin said: “It depends on whether McConnell would come and celebrate with us. I would certainly welcome him.”

If the numbers are any indication, Bevin would do well to think about what he’ll be doing after Primary Day. The last poll of the race, taken in February by Republican polling firm Wenzel Strategies, had McConnell leading Bevin by 42 points. A previous poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal had McConnell’s lead at “only” 26 points, while a Public Policy Polling poll in December had McConnell up by 27 points. There hasn’t been any other published polling in the state since February, so these numbers may not be entirely accurate, but it seems unlikely that Bevin has had much success at closing the gap.

One of the biggest things that has helped McConnell beat back the challenge by Bevin, of course, is the fact that he has had the support and endorsement of Kentucky’s union Senator, and Tea Party darling, Rand Paul. That endorsement grew out of a political alliance that Paul himself formed shortly after he took office in 2011 that, at the time at least, was obviously aimed more at ensuring Paul’s political future than McConnell’s. The year before, Paul had beaten back a tough challenge from Trey Greyson, who was at that time the Secretary of State of Kentucky and had the backing of pretty much the entire Kentucky Republican “establishment.” By making peace with McConnell, Paul obviously hoped to avoid the possibility of a future establishment challenge when he ran for re-election. Eventually, the McConnell-Paul alliance was strengthened even further when Jesse Benton, Paul’s former campaign manager and the husband of one of the Senator’s nieces, became McConnell’s campaign manager. When the Bevin challenge developed and Paul quickly responded by endorsing McConnell for re-election, many Paul supporters in Kentucky seem to have jumping over to the McConnell camp even though one might expect them to have become Bevin supporters. In a large respect then, the alliance with Rand Paul was as much a political masterstroke for McConnell as it was for Paul, and it’s likely gone a long way toward blunting Bevin’s momentum.

There’s more at play in the Kentucky primary than just the Rand Paul factor, of course. Mitch McConnell has demonstrated quite aptly over his career that he knows how to navigate the sometimes odd political landscape of his home state, and he’s beaten back challengers before so this latest one from Bevin wasn’t exactly new to him. He also has access to one of the biggest campaign war chests of any member of the Senate, which means that he can spend heavily against Bevin now without worrying too much about how it will impact his ability to do so in the General Election campaign. Additionally, as I’ve noted, Bevin hasn’t come across as the greatest candidate at time. In addition to the odd cockfighting story, he seems to have ended up undercutting his own credibility earlier in the year when he attacked McConnell for supporting the 2008 TARP bill only to have it revealed days later that he had endorsed TARP when he worked as a financial analyst. More importantly, though, notwithstanding Rand Paul’s victory in 2010, it doesn’t seem to be the case that Kentucky Republicans are as hard right as many Tea Party activists would like them to be.

It is, of course, entirely possible that we’ll all be surprised on May 20th and Bevin will win this thing somehow, but it seems to be incredibly unlikely.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, Congress, Tea Party, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. legion says:

    Bevin, like all Tea Party candidates, is a dimwitted hack. And also, like all Tea Party candidates, his only chance at winning is to run against an even-more-incompetent incumbent, which McConnell, for all his faults, is not. The real fun will start once McConnell has to compete against someone who’s _not_ a 2-dimensional caricature of a political tool, like his Dem opponent…

  2. EddieInCA says:

    Something to keep in mind….

    By all accounts, Kentucky has pretty much been the most successful ACA story out there for the states. Led by a Dem Governor, the state has signed up a whole lot of people; many of which are Republicans.

    Allison Grimes will be a formidable candidate for Mr. McConnell. Some of his attacks from the past will have to be toned down because he’s facing a well-liked woman. If he does what he’s done in the past with a scorched earth campaign, he will lose big. As it is, I think he’s going to lose for the simple fact that the ACA is working well in Kentucky. It will be close, but Grimes is matching him on fundraising, and she’s a smart politico.

    Should be entertaining.

    How delicious an irony would it be to have McConnell lose while Obama is still in office?

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @legion: I hope so, but McConnell has

    …one of the biggest campaign war chests…

    I’m afraid that’s the dominant factor.

  4. One of the biggest things that has helped McConnell beat back the challenge by Bevin, of course, is the fact that he has had the support and endorsement of Kentucky’s union Senator, and Tea Party darling, Rand Paul.

    Probably the first and only time Rand Paul will ever be accused of being in league with organized labor.

  5. James Pearce says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Probably the first and only time Rand Paul will ever be accused of being in league with organized labor.

    Ha. I thought that was weird too….maybe some Kentuckyism of some sort.

    But “union” and “junior”…..miss a letter and spell check does the rest.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    Will it really matter who wins this race, when inevitably we will be a one party state?

    Ha! Suck it, supes. Beat you to it.