Mitch McConnell now faces double jeopardy in his 2014 bid to be reelected to the US Senate as he will face a primary challenge from conservative businessman Matt Bevin, who he must defeat before he can advance to face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. McConnell is the latest target in the crusade by the Tea Party wing of the GOP to drive RINOs to the brink of political extinction. Sure, to Americans grounded in the political center, the idea that Mitch McConnell is too liberal might be a “head scratcher”, but the strategy of the Bevin campaign is to argue precisely that.
Bevin’s first political ad asserts that “McConnell has voted for higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises, and liberal judges”, while Bevin by contrast, is praised as a “successful businessman, father of nine, veteran, conservative, Republican.” McConnell has wasted no time in pulling out a six figure ad buy to attack his new GOP opponent. McConnell has also been running attack ads against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes after she announced her entry in to the Kentucky Senate race earlier this year.
Bevin’s decision to challenge McConnell puts the Senator in the awkward position of trying to placate right-wing Republican primary voters to fend off Bevin, while not tacking so far right that he becomes vulnerable to losing to a Democrat. If he positions himself too far on the ideological fringe he may not survive a general election, but GOP primary voters will punish him if he fails to appeal to their far right concerns. Polling in the spring of 2013 illustrated that McConnell is not well liked in Kentucky, so he could be vulnerable from both his right and left flanks against strong campaigns by either of his opponents. Early polling still has McConnell comfortably ahead versus Bevin 59-20 but that is largely due to Bevin’s lack of name recognition at this stage. McConnell’s lead over Grimes is 48-40 in the latest poll conducted July 23rd and 24th by Wenzel Strategies, a GOP polling firm.
Although McConnell is an unpopular Senator and not an especially effective lawmaker, he has assembled a significant financial war chest and his capacity for ruthless campaigning and relentless attack ads will make him a tough foe to defeat. Nevertheless, the entry of Bevin into the race complicates McConnell’s task and sets up the possibility for a political upset. McConnell’s 2008 victory over Democrat Bruce Lunsford was a surprisingly competitive 53-47 win, so the five-term Senator and Senate Minority leader is by no means invincible.
In addition, Bevin’s entry into the race must make establishment GOP operatives a bit nervous, as did the entry of Liz Cheney to challenge Senator Mike Enzi in Wyoming. Both challenges signal the willingness of conservative activists to continue taking on standing GOP Senators, the consequences be damned. Although Republican leaders were partially responsible for ginning up Tea Party support in 2010, the emergence of the Tea Party movement has been a bit of a double-edged sword for the GOP. Tea Party fueled candidates have almost certainly cost Republicans a number of contested Senate races in the last two election cycles. In 2012, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock took on sitting Senator Richard Lugar and ousted him in the Republican primary, before his infamous comments about rape sunk him in the general election.
Other Tea Party favorites like Todd Akin (MO) in 2012 and Ken Buck (CO) Sharron Angle (NV) and Christine O’Donnell (DE) in 2010 also likely squandered Republican opportunities to pick up additional Senate seats. O’Donnell in particular defeated popular moderate Republican Congressman Mike Castle in a primary before getting trounced by Democrat Chris Coon, in a race that Castle almost certainly would have won had he not been defeated in the primary. On the other hand, Ted Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Mike Lee in Utah are all Tea Party favorites who were able to knock off more moderate establishment GOP opponents, with Lee taking out a standing US Senator.
Whether McConnell can be seriously challenged in a primary by a lesser known opponent remains to be seen, but the fact that the Tea Party has selected an opponent to run to McConnell’s right means that the Senator will have to court hard right conservatives before he can try to dance back to the center to fend off the challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes. Mitch McConnell is an able campaigner who has a track record of destroying his political opponents, but his weaker than expected showing in 2008, his diminished popularity, and the fact that he is now fighting his battle for political survival in a two front war, suggests that his days in the Senate could come to an abrupt end in 2014.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.