Who Really Wants McConnell to Win His Primary? Democrats

Kentucky Dems see tea party-backed Matt Bevin as a tougher general-election competitor.

Mitch McConnell, R-KY is the Senate minority leader
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Sept. 3, 2013, 2 a.m.

There’s a cer­tain script Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies have come to fol­low, and it in­volves es­tab­lish­ment types pro­claim­ing the in­cum­bent bet­ter po­si­tioned to take on a Demo­crat than whichever tea-party chal­lenger.

But in Ken­tucky, the es­tab­lish­ment might have it back­wards.

Matt Bev­in, the Louis­ville-area busi­ness­man run­ning against Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, is new to polit­ics. He’s dis­missed by many in the GOP as a glor­i­fied gad­fly. Still, he’s got something the vet­er­an law­maker lacks — a thin re­cord that will be dif­fi­cult for Demo­crats to pick apart.

In­deed, Demo­crats are hop­ing to turn the Sen­ate race in­to a ref­er­en­dum on an un­pop­u­lar in­cum­bent. But without Mc­Con­nell on the tick­et, the pre­sumed Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, will face a much tough­er foe in the fresh-faced Re­pub­lic­an, some long­time Bluegrass State polit­ic­al watch­ers say.

It’s not that Bev­in is any stronger than a gen­er­ic Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate. But in deeply red Ken­tucky, that’s all that’s needed. Pres­id­ent Obama lost Ken­tucky by 22 points last year, and the older white voters who turn out in great­er pro­por­tion dur­ing a midterm elec­tion will push the state even fur­ther to the right. In a race about is­sues — like cli­mate-change reg­u­la­tions and Obama­care — a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate who can be tied to the pres­id­ent stands little chance.

Mc­Con­nell’s un­pop­ular­ity is the sole reas­on Demo­crats hope they can win in a state oth­er­wise hos­tile to their fed­er­al can­did­ates. The Demo­crat­ic polling firm Pub­lic Policy Polling has called Mc­Con­nell the least pop­u­lar sen­at­or based on its sur­veys, while an in­tern­al poll from the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee found that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of voters, 71 per­cent, don’t think he’s work­ing to change polit­ics in Wash­ing­ton.

Seek­ing a sixth term in of­fice when voter an­ti­pathy to­ward Wash­ing­ton reaches all-time highs isn’t easy. And in the early go­ing, the Grimes cam­paign has framed the GOP lead­er as the per­son­i­fic­a­tion of everything wrong with the coun­try’s dys­func­tion­al polit­ic­al sys­tem.

But against Bev­in, who has nev­er held of­fice and is run­ning a cam­paign that em­phas­izes his out­sider cre­den­tials, Grimes’s strategy dis­in­teg­rates.

“It would be night-and-day-change for the race,” said Jim Cauley, a Demo­crat­ic strategist in Ken­tucky who thinks Bev­in presents a great­er chal­lenge than Mc­Con­nell. “We would have to switch gears com­pletely.”

Even Bev­in’s avowed hard-right con­ser­vat­ism wouldn’t cripple him in a gen­er­al elec­tion. He has taken po­s­i­tions, such as threat­en­ing to shut down the gov­ern­ment if Obama­care isn’t de­fun­ded, that could hurt him in a gen­er­al elec­tion. But Ken­tucky voters were presen­ted with an­oth­er ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate, Rand Paul in 2010, and put him in of­fice des­pite a stiff chal­lenge from the state’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al. And while Bev­in’s po­s­i­tions are sharp, he’s nev­er backed any po­s­i­tion as egre­gious as Paul’s stated un­eas­i­ness, later re­can­ted, with the Civil Rights Act.

“That was the knock on Rand Paul, that he was so far to the right,” said Dan Adams, who ran the now-sen­at­or’s primary cam­paign in 2010 and is a Bev­in sup­port­er. “If there was any con­cern in 2010 about that, it was taken care of then. The only thing that has changed is we’ve prob­ably be­come more con­ser­vat­ive as a state.”

Bev­in’s can­did­acy wouldn’t lack for po­ten­tial pit­falls: His lack of ex­per­i­ence might help boost his ap­peal, but it also means he’s un­tested. A dif­fi­cult cam­paign could ex­pose him as li­able to make the same mis­takes as pre­vi­ous (and in­fam­ous) Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, such as Christine O’Don­nell or Todd Akin. In a sign of Bev­in’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity, Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign has already run a TV ad cri­ti­ciz­ing him for ly­ing about be­ing a gradu­ate of the Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy.

Jesse Benton, the sen­at­or’s cam­paign man­ager, said it is “pro­foundly ab­surd” to be­lieve Bev­in was a stronger gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ate than Mc­Con­nell. Bev­in, he said, is “un­proven and un­tested” and car­ried “deep flaws with vir­tu­ally no vet­ting.”

Mc­Con­nell, on the oth­er hand, is a vet­er­an politi­cian who has sur­vived tough chal­lenges be­fore. And many in­de­pend­ent polit­ic­al ana­lysts, such as Nate Sil­ver of The New York Times, ex­pect him to walk in­to a gen­er­al elec­tion against Grimes as the heavy fa­vor­ite.

Many Bluegrass op­er­at­ives also say that, in any case, it’s a moot point. Mc­Con­nell re­mains the heavy fa­vor­ite against Bev­in, who has yet to so­lid­i­fy the party’s con­ser­vat­ive fac­tions be­hind him. The in­cum­bent has far more money, much high­er name re­cog­ni­tion, and the prized en­dorse­ment of con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots fa­vor­ite Paul. Bev­in hasn’t even been able to earn an en­dorse­ment from the anti-es­tab­lish­ment Club for Growth.

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