The entry of Louisville businessman Matt Bevin into the U.S. Senate race has Kentucky Republicans discussing who is the more conservative between the investor and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But one state GOP lawmaker is urging the party to remain loyal to McConnell for standing up to President Obama’s agenda.
A coalition of Tea Party groups in the state are backing Bevin’s candidacy and outside groups have indicated they’re willing to do so as well.
The primary challenge to McConnell has gained national attention for an already high-profiled race.
McConnell’s campaign have referred to Bevin as a “nuisance” and “con man” in the past week, and are pressuring Kentucky TV stations to take down the challenger’s first ad for alleged federal election violations.
Observers say this is unchartered territory politically, but the early defense amongst McConnell’s supporters is he remains the person who can best advocate for conservative values in Washington.
State Senator Damon Thayer is majority floor whip who represents parts of northern Kentucky, which is heavily Republican. He says McConnell is a conservative leader despite Tea Party criticisms, adding this primary contest won’t split the GOP.
“I know what it’s like to have a Tea Party primary. I had one last year, and I got 63 percent of the vote. And that’s because a lot of Tea Party folks stuck with me because of my conservative values. And I think there will be a large number of Tea Party folks joining with mainstream Republicans to give Mitch a big victory in the primary,” he says. “I’ve met Matt a couple times, he’s obviously successful and a nice guy. But he’s a rookie engaging in a Don Quixote-like episode of jousting at windmills that ultimately will prove unsuccessful for him.”
A new survey released by Wenzel Strategies on Thursday shows McConnell leading Bevin by 40 points, which could be more of a reflection that Bevin still has low name recognition in a head-to-head contest. Observers have questioned the firms accuracy in the past and pointed out its failings in past election cycles, however.
In many conservatives’ eyes, McConnell is the architect of the modern Republican Party in Kentucky and is directly responsible for making the GOP competitive in a state once dominated by Democrats. Overthrowing McConnell in a primary could jeopardize more than just his Senate seat.
Beyond the influence in Washington argument, the McConnell campaign is encouraging lawmakers back home to keep that in mind.
Bevin has acknowledged a party leader has never been defeated in a primary contest, but he argues McConnell’s record is not conservative enough and activists outside of the state are itching to get involved.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which is a national PAC, for instance, says it is hypocritical for McConnell to criticize Bevin accepting a state grant for his Connecticut-based business in a TV ad.
Founded by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, SCF points out McConnell voted for the bank bailouts and has taken approximately $339,000 in campaign contributions from those financial institutions..
“We haven’t endorsed a candidate in the Kentucky race, but we’re not going to be silent if Mitch McConnell continues to mislead voters,” says executive director Matt Hoskins. “This Senate seat belongs to the people of Kentucky and he owes it to them to tell the truth and defend his own record.”
Both Bevin and McConnell are scheduled to attend the annual Fancy Farm picnic in August, which will be their first joint appearance. The McConnell campaign has since requested all candidates—included perennial GOP contender Gurley L. Martin—also be included.
That could be a sign McConnell wants to crowd the stage to avoid being caught in the crossfire of Bevin and Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is considered the likely nominee next November.
“I think you’ll see as time goes on that this will not likely be a serious challenge in the primary,” says Thayer. “And I predict quite frankly Senator McConnell will ultimately beat Grimes pretty handily. I think the Republican Party is on the cusp of a pretty good couple of cycles.”