Will a Tea Party Challenger Threaten McConnell?

Will a Tea Party Challenger Threaten McConnell?

By Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 29, 2013

When Ashley Judd announced on Wednesday that she had decided not to run for Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat in Kentucky, national Democrats quickly made clear that they remain serious about taking on the five-term lawmaker. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a small anti-McConnell radio ad buy the next morning.

But before the Senate minority leader can devote all of his attention to fending off whoever emerges from the Democratic primary in 2014, he may first have to contend with a GOP challenge from the right.

“I believe there’s going to be interest from a primary candidate,” said Charlie Costello, a Tea Party activist in the Bluegrass State. “I can think of several people that might have a chance, but it’s going to have to be someone like Rand Paul, who gets on message, stays on message, and says what people believe.”

Costello was not referring to the current iteration of Rand Paul, who has become close with McConnell and has lent support to his fellow Kentuckian. Instead, he was harking back to the 2010 version of Paul, who that year successfully fought an upstart battle against Secretary of State Trey Grayson -- another establishment-backed Republican who was the clear favorite in the race.

Until the campaign’s final weeks, Paul was not given much of a chance, but he ended up riding that year’s Tea Party wave to topple McConnell’s preferred candidate.

His come-from-behind victory remains fresh in the minds of Tea Party-aligned forces in Kentucky, whose antipathy for their senior senator increased after his role negotiating the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff deal. Their problem, however, is that no potential candidate with Paul’s pedigree and political skill set appears to be waiting in the wings.

And for that reason, McConnell’s campaign team is -- for now, at least -- breathing a sigh of relief.

“McConnell has consolidated conservative support in the state, as well as Republican members of the legislature and the entire GOP delegation in Congress, including the support of Sen. Ran Paul,” said McConnell’s campaign manager, Jessie Benton. “We continue our outreach, and we continue to talk to Tea Party folks -- just as we talk to every single constituent -- to let Tea Party folks know we respect them and have shared values and goals. It does not appear that there is a serious challenger.”

McConnell’s hiring of Benton last year was seen as a major coup, since the campaign operative had run Paul’s Senate campaign and continues to have deep roots within the Tea Party in Kentucky. But Benton’s decision to jump aboard the McConnell ship has not eliminated dissent on the right.

In a Courier-Journal Bluegrass poll conducted weeks after the fiscal cliff deal, just 34 percent of Republicans polled said that they would vote for McConnell, regardless of his opponent. Among the overall electorate, 34 percent of those polled said that they planned to vote against him, while just 17 percent said that they intended to support the incumbent (44 percent intended to wait until a challenger emerges before deciding).

The seriousness with which McConnell has taken the possibility of a major challenge from either his right or left flank was reflected in the slate of radio ads -- touting his Senate leadership -- that his campaign has blanketed the state with.

Benton said McConnell is “unlikely to keep ads up for a substantial period of time,” adding that the minority leader’s internal polls show him with a job approval rating of “over 50 percent.”

Nonetheless, Kentucky Republican Liberty Caucus chairman David Adams insisted that there is still plenty of time to recruit a viable Tea Party challenger, an unofficial effort that Adams has been helming for months. Adams said he continues to be in discussions with several potential candidates interested in running against the well-funded incumbent, though he declined to name any of them.

“The fact that the campaign is already fast and furious indicates that Sen. McConnell’s polling suggests there’s something for him to worry about,” Adams said. “It’s kind of a weird sense I get that the opportunity for an opponent for Sen. McConnell in a primary just got better. Maybe our options have increased.”

Tea Party-aligned Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin is reportedly among the possible challengers, and his personal wealth could help make him a viable threat.

Meanwhile, Democratic Party operatives insist that a viable challenger from the left will emerge.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is considered a young, rising star and is well connected in Kentucky Democratic Party politics. Her father is close with Bill Clinton and the former president has reportedly offered his support.

Lundergan Grimes hasn’t said whether she will join the fray. “She has been focused on the legislative session,” said her spokeswoman, Lynn Zellen.

Several other prominent Kentucky Democrats have thus far passed on mounting a bid, but party officials say there is no rush. “McConnell’s vulnerability and his polling numbers afford the luxury of not needing to have a candidate right away,” said one Democratic Senate strategist.

While Democrats work on recruitment, McConnell continues to grow his campaign. He had over $7 million on hand, as of his last campaign filing, and is traveling the state this week while the chamber is in recess. 

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Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns

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