In south central Kentucky, few people care more about politics than Joe Walden.
A former elector in the 2000 presidential race, Walden’s family is part of local legend for having been Republican “ruffians” in the state capitol when was Gov. William Goebel was assassinated in 1900.
This latest battle Walden is weighing isn’t as dangerous.
Six years ago Walden voted for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, but he is undecided this time out. He is waiting outside of Sam’s burgers in Scottsville, Ky. to hear what Matt Bevin, a Tea Party backed candidate who is taking on McConnell in the GOP primary.
“I could be persuaded not to vote for McConnell, but I’ve not been yet,” says Walden.
“Bevin has his line down and he talks a good talk. The trouble with someone like Bevin is you really don’t know what he is because he’s not been around long enough. I hear very little in this county. Very little.”
Just around two-dozen people are at Sam’s by the time Bevin arrives. Many want to hear from the candidate, but just as many are on their lunch break.
Bevin faces long odds even with the backing of every state Tea Party group and national organization like FreedomWorks. Conservative activists such as radio host Glenn Beck have said Bevin is “called of God” in this primary race.
Outsiders have poured in over $1 million in support of Bevin, a 46-year-old Louisville investor and political newcomer, who speaks to crowds no matter how small or controversial.
As a businessman Bevin knows what’s it’s like to make a sale, but trying to convince Kentucky Republicans that McConnell is a liberal might be his most difficult.
“My hope is that people will vote and take it seriously, that Republican primary voters will recognize that they have a choice for the first time in 30 years,” Bevin told WFPL outside the Scottsville diner. “And if they don’t like the path we’re on the way to change it is to go to the ballot box and vote for somebody different. That’s how America was made great and that’s how it’ll change going forward.”
In many ways Bevin is the perfect conservative to challenge McConnell.
The narrative Bevin tells onlookers is one of humble beginnings and self reliance. He grew up in rural New Hampshire on his family’s farm with seven siblings, killing chickens and living through harsh winters.
That upbringing informs Bevin’s belief in limited government, and that federal power should not interfere on state issues such as education, health care or the environment.
After graduating from Washington & Lee University, Bevin climbed the military ranks to become an Army captain. He then went on to be a successful investor whose net worth is now somewhere between $13.4 million to $54.9 million, according to the Senate Ethics Committee filings.
If the rags-to-riches story isn’t enough to win over conservative voters, Bevin’s campaign is quick to remind observers he is a father of nine children, including four who are adopted.
But as a first-time candidate running against McConnell’s relentless attack machine, Bevin is being shredded. He spends as much time on the campaign trail in Kentucky refuting negative ads as introducing himself to voters.
“Matt Bevin seems like he’s got some good personal qualities,” says McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. “Perhaps a shortcoming of his is that he seems to have a very thin-skin about himself.”
When Bevin first announced last summer, Benton referred to the challenger as nothing more than an “East Coast con man.”
Over the course of this primary campaign, McConnell’s team has tried to prove that point.
They accuse Bevin of lying about attending MIT on his online resume. Bevin said he did not mislead voters about attending the prestigious school.
The McConnell campaign has also slammed Bevin for accepting a state grant to rebuild his fire damaged Connecticut-based business and failing to pay his taxes on time.
Bevin once again refutes those accusations as lies, and employed his children to say as much.
It wasn’t long ago when McConnell thought Bevin was a viable candidate—for Congress. Benton says the senator’s allies had tried to recruit Bevin to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth this year.
“I was supposed to be chosen and feel special. It’s the nonsense of it all. This system has been hijacked,” said Bevin. “This is not owned by McConnell or the Republicans or the Democrats or this little handful of elites like Karl Rove or George Soros”
When Bevin began showing more interest in the Senate, the opposition research dug into his record and McConnell’s team don’t hesitate in saying that taking on the most powerful Republican has its consequences.
“If you’re going to be the standard bearer for the Republican Party of Kentucky and in many ways the Republican Party nationally, because this is the most high-profiled race this year you owe it to the party and party loyalists to go through this kind of vetting,” said Benton.
“There’s a certain level of dignity we all try to bring to the process and places we certainly try not to go and some level of decorum, but you need to take some tough shots.”
Republicans like Charlie Witschey of Scottsville, Ky., however, say the barrage of attack ads are having the reverse effect among grassroots conservatives.
He is voting for Bevin.
“Because he’s running against Mitch McConnell whose been in the Senate since dinosaurs walked the Earth. And all McConnell can do is go out and run ads and trash this guy,” he says.
It’s clear that GOP officials are lining up behind the senator, but an anti-McConnell sentiment among rank and file conservatives cannot be ignored.
While McConnell is the face of opposition to President Obama’s agenda nationally, there are parts of Kentucky where he is actually seen as a Democratic enabler.
For instance, many at Sam’s blamed McConnell for torpedoing Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s plan to filibuster the debt ceiling vote in an effort to de-fund the health care law.
“McConnell’s been there too long. He’s entrenched. He’s part of the problem. It’s time for a change,” says Witschey. “He supported Obamacare. He supported it by funding it. And he can’t get away from that. When you think of Obamacare, think of Mitch McConnell.”
Voters like Witschey are Bevin’s best bet in what’s expected to be a low turnout primary election.
But if Bevin was trying to avoid McConnell’s attacks that he has been less than truthful, then his explanation for attending a cockfighting rally in March didn’t help. In fact, it might be a crippling blow to his candidacy.
Initially, Bevin said it was a “state’s rights” event and that cockfighting never came up while he was there. But a WAVE-3 TV showed undercover footage of Bevin taking questions about the blood sport and saying he was against making that part of Kentucky’s heritage illegal.
Since then Bevin and his supporters have bristled at questions about the cockfighting controversy and have tried to shrug it off as an “old story.”
Before that story broke, I asked Bevin during his stop at Sam’s burger if those string of controversies or attacks are having an effect.
“This is not hard for me and the reason it’s not hard for me is because I don’t fake it,” he said. “This is who I really am. People will like it or dislike it. I do not need or want this job badly enough to misrepresent who I am to get it.”
After hearing from Bevin and talking to the candidate personal Joe Walden remained undecided, but admits this might have been a challenge better suited for a more well-known contender.
“Sometimes a campaign is decided the day of the filing deadline, and you either have it or you don’t. And I don’t know that Matt Bevin has really got it. He’s going to get a lot of dissatisfied Republicans. I would say what we needed was a better candidate than him, someone that was known throughout Kentucky if you wanted to beat McConnell somebody who was better known and just had a better resume maybe,” he says.
Kentucky’s Republican primary is on May 20.
Many prognosticators believe McConnell will handily defeat Bevin, but will face stiffer competition in likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes in a general election this fall.
Polls show McConnell and Grimes in a virtual tie.