Mitch McConnell Soundly Defeats Tea Party Challenger In Kentucky GOP Primary

A big loss for the Tea Party, and a big win for Mitch McConnell,

Mitch McConnell

For a time, the GOP Primary in Kentucky between Senator Mitch McConnell and relative political newcomer Matt Bevin was thought by many to be ground zero for the ongoing battle between the Republican “establishment” and the Tea Party. McConnell, after all, had been a target of Tea Party attacks virtually from the moment that the GOP took control of the House in the 2010 elections, and that continued throughout the ensuing years notwithstanding the fact that, like John Boehner, McConnell largely did whatever the Tea Party wanted until it became apparent that pursuing their strategy simply was not going to work. As time went on, though, Bevin’s campaign quickly began to flame out. In no small part, this was due to the fact that McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Senator, Rand Paul, had forged an alliance with the senior Senator from the time he won his own election and was quick to endorse McConnell when the prospect of a Tea Party challenge arose. That helped to create divided loyalties among the more conservative voters in Kentucky and, combined with Bevin’s own missteps on issues ranging from TARP to cockfighting, turned what started out as a potentially competitive contest into a rout.

Tonight, we received confirmation of that rout when McConnell was declared the winner of the race almost as soon as polls closed:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell handily defeated tea party favorite Matt Bevin in Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary Tuesday night. With 7 percent of the state’s precincts in, McConnell leads Bevin by nearly 30 percent of the vote.

The Associated Press called the race shortly after polls closed in the state, a result that probably would have seemed unlikely when Bevin first declared his intention to run. McConnell was a major target for conservative groups unhappy with the Republican establishment, but, for reasons we articulated earlier today, Bevin never found much traction.

More from the Louisville Courier-Journal:

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has again won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has won the Democratic nomination, according to The Associated Press.

Their victories set up a multimillion dollar battle in November.

McConnell and Grimes have been looking past their primary competition for weeks as it was clear that they would win their primaries. And three hours before the first Kentucky polls even closed, a group announced it was spending more than a half million to attack Grimes.

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a political action group that makes independent expenditures on McConnell’s behalf, announced that it would begin airing the ad on statewide broadcast and cable television stations Wednesday morning and would spend $575,000 for air time over the next 13 days.

And Politico:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily defeated his tea-party inspired Republican primary challenger on Tuesday, one of the biggest primary days of 2014.

The McConnell win, called almost immediately after polls finished closing, is a boost to the GOP establishment on a night that is expected to favor that wing of the party and incumbents generally. The senator led his GOP challenger, Matt Bevin, 62 percent to 33 percent, with only 7 percent of precincts reporting when The Associated Press called the race.

McConnell, 72, had been polling well ahead of the 47-year-old Bevin, who was aided by more than $1 million in spending from outside conservative groups but made several mistakes and faced an onslaught of attacks from the veteran incumbent. McConnell now goes on to face Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee who skated in her primary and is considered a formidable general election candidate.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the groups that poured money into Bevin’s campaign, issued a statement late Tuesday congratulating McConnell, thanking Bevin for “standing up for conservative principles” and calling for Republicans to “unite” in the fight against Grimes. But Bevin himself has not said if he would support McConnell, though he has pledged not to back the Democrat come November.

This is, of course, not all that surprising. As I noted above, as well as in other posts about the race leading up to today, McConnell had clearly pulled away from Bevin long ago according to all of the available polling. Additionally, Bevin’s own missteps and the support that McConnell received from Rand Paul and his supporters seemingly made all of this a foregone conclusion. In the end, the only question was how big McConnell’s margin of victory was and, with about 57% percent of the precincts reporting, McConnell has just about a 24 point advantage over Bevin (I had predicted he’d win by 25 points yesterday, so my ego is kind of hoping he goes over the top there). In other words, it wasn’t even a contest.

Inevitably, there will be talk in the coming days about what this means for the ongoing battle inside the Republican Party between the “establishment” and the Tea Party and its supporters. On that issue, it strikes me that there isn’t any way to characterize this as other than an utter defeat for the Tea Party. McConnell has been in their cross hairs for years now, and Rand Paul’s victory in 2010 over an establishment supported nominee in the GOP Primary was their inspiration. For the most part, they used the same playbook they had in previous Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012 where incumbents and establishment candidates were challenged, and that made sense given the fact that they had succeeded with that strategy in the past. The difference in Kentucky this time, as it has been in other races around the country, is the fact that the so-called “establishment” has been fighting back in a way that they didn’t do in previous election cycles. The fact that they’ve been winning suggests that the influence of the Tea Party inside the Republican Party, as well as groups like FreedomWorks, the Club For Growth, and Senate Conservatives Fund, may well have reached its zenith.

Things aren’t likely to go this easy for Mitch McConnell going forward. If the polls are to be believed, he faces a formidable challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee. It’s worth noting, however, that the polls were also telling us that McConnell was in serious danger of losing the nomination when this race started last year, and McConnell has proven throughout his political career that his is survivor. Counting him out would be foolish and, right now, I’m thinking that he will most likely eke out a win over Grimes in the fall.

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. Jim Henley says:

    The “Tea Party vs. Establishment” dynamic in the GOP is purely a dispute over tactics, not policy. The so-called establishment candidates mouth TP platitudes and vote TP positions. They simply argue that the structure of government puts limits on how far they can enact a Tea Party agenda without complete control of the Senate and Presidency to go with the House and Supreme Court.

    McConnell is probably the only bona fide genius in American politics, so it’s not surprising that he would win. The Tea Party remains useful to him, since it provides the mass base supporting his politically shrewd massive-resistance strategy in the Senate.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    The Tea Baggers are history…and yet inequality, the raison d ‘etre of Occupy, is the talk of the town including two current runaway best sellers.
    Who’d a thunk it???
    Well…not Doug….

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    If a Real Conservative had been nominated, McConnel would be out of a job now.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    @Neil Hudelson wrote:

    If a Real Conservative had been nominated, McConnel would be out of a job now.

    Oh Neil, you sad misguided fool, have you not been listening to our resident representative of the Real Conservative Majority(TM)?

    A Real Conservative never wins, because Real Conservatives don’t vote in elections, since the elections are all rigged to elect RINO’s and Marxists.

    Again: The Real Conservative Majority are the worst. citizens. evah.

  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    They would vote more if the LAMEstream media stopped telling them to vote for RINOs.

    Also, too, Benghazi.

  6. CSK says:

    Tea Potty appears to have been smashed into smithereens almost everywhere tonight.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    The Georgia primary race will be fun. It’ll be a mad race to the far right. Which will be good for Nunn. If this works out she can sit on the sidelines and fundraise while Perdue and Kingston promise to round up gays and execute undocumented workers.

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    The Tea Party is the Establishment.

  9. de stijl says:


    Tea Potty appears to have been smashed into smithereens almost everywhere tonight.

    @Andre Kenji:

    The Tea Party is the Establishment.

    Andre has the right of it.

    The so-called Tea Party dragged the Republican establishment to the Right to an unprecedented degree. In three years we went from Cap-and-trade as the default Republican position to obligatory Climate Change denialism. (Not as a belief per se, but as a shibboleth.)

    Tea Party candidates may not have fared well in general elections, but Republicans of all stripes have adopted Tea Party positions in the aggregate.

    But it’s probably a “winning the battle, but losing the war” type of a development. They’ve succeeded in getting the R’s to lurch to right, but will it result in 2016 success? We’ll see.

    TP candidates lost more than they won in R primaries, but “out-there” TP policies are now Republican orthodoxy. If a majority of legislators fear the primary challenger more than they do the general election candidate while their party is going through an ideological purity spasm, then things are gonna get weird.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    …the influence of the Tea Party inside the Republican Party, as well as groups like FreedomWorks, the Club For Growth, and Senate Conservatives Fund, may well have reached its zenith.

    This is the thing nobody writes about. The Tea Party was not a grass roots insurgency, it was more of a palace coup.

    From my vantage point, with no viewport into the internal workings of the Republican party, it seems to have been largely a Koch bros/resource extraction wing of the GOP establishment against the traditional finance/corporate/old money wing. Do recent events show the old establishment has beaten the TP? Or is it that the billionaire Birchers won and are now part of the establishment; so they’re putting away their anti-establishment tools?

    I really wish people with more insight into the Party (James?) would address this. Instead everybody pretends the TP just sort of fell out of the sky on an unsuspecting Republican Party.

  11. mantis says:

    The comment threads on wingnut blogs about McConnell’s victory are hilarious. Erick “Erick” Erickson wrote a post urging support for McConnell now that he has defeated their preferred candidate, Matt “legal gay marriage means parents marrying children” Bevin, and the responses are delightful. Alternating between rage at Erick son of Erick for his apostasy, rage at McConnell for being a secret Democrat, declarations that America is doomed and the Chinese will be invading and confiscating all property shortly, and promises to sit out the election, they are not happy to say the least. A couple of reasonable people point out how McConnell is actually a pretty conservativeguy. The response? They are stealth liberals paid to sow dissent. At

    I’m starting to think the right primarily consists of certifiable paranoid schizophrenics.

  12. Tillman says:

    So, how much money did it take to beat Bevin into the ground?

  13. Moosebreath says:


    “how much money did it take to beat Bevin into the ground?”

    This morning on NPR, Mara Liaison predicted this race would end up passing $100 million for primary and general.

  14. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Nunn will have to do a bit of campaigning against Kingston or Perdue, whichever wins the run-off. If it had been Paul Broun, on the other hand, she could have gone on a five-month cruise around the Mediterranean and returned to Georgia on November 4 to give her victory speech.

  15. Jim Henley says:

    @CSK: I’m curious why you think this. It’s a midterm electorate (relatively old and white) in an age of strongly polarized voters. A state the went GOP in a presidential election – a younger, browner electorate – just two years ago hardly seems like a shoo-in to reject any Republican nominee.

  16. Jim Henley says:

    Additional thought: The GOP’s relentless disparagement of our governing institutions doesn’t just tend to instill a learned helplessness regarding political change among lightly engaged voters generally. It lowers the barrier to the election of any fringe candidates who get through the Republican-Party nominating process. “Sure so-and-so is kinda out there. But Congress sucks anyway! They deserve each other!” Or, at minimum, “Yeah, he’s a nut, but he’s a conservative nut, and how much worse can the Senate get? At least he won’t support liberal stuff.”

    The low esteem to which Republicans drive the legislative or executive body makes voting for crazy conservatives more rather than less acceptable, even for somewhat less conservative Republican voters.

  17. CSK says:

    @Jim Henley:

    Just hyperbole for the sake of humor. Actually I think that Nunn will have a tough fight against either Perdue or Kingston. But if Broun HAD been her opponent, it would have been plain sailing for her.

  18. Jim Henley says:

    @CSK: Gotcha. I think even Broun would have had a good shot in the general, but that must remain a matter of speculation!

  19. Tillman says:

    @Jim Henley:

    “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” – P.J. O’Rourke