Political Paddock: Is this the end for Matt Bevin?

Herald-Leader Political writerFebruary 17, 2014 

Even Alison Lundergan Grimes' grandmother seems to think Matt Bevin is headed toward defeat at the hands of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"After he finishes with that Tea Party feller, he will come after Alison with a vengeance," Elsie Case, Grimes' grandmother, told a Northern Kentucky audience Monday.

Case joins a growing chorus.

The revelation last week that Bevin signed a letter to investors praising the 2008 bank bailouts, combined with Bevin's tortured explanation and repeated condemnations of the bailout, make for a potentially fatal political blow. To McConnell's re-election team, it represented "the final piece of the puzzle."

Bevin, the Louisville businessman challenging McConnell in the May 20 Republican primary, already was struggling mightily to raise money and gain traction against the much better-funded and more well-known McConnell.

But for McConnell — and really, to the outside Tea Party fundraising groups getting involved to take out Kentucky's senior senator — this was never about Bevin. It is the proxy war McConnell wanted to wage against those outside groups, a wish those groups have been only too happy to accommodate.

Now, Team Mitch is armed with what it thinks is the right ammunition to achieve the ultimate goal: dividing Tea Party voters from Tea Party fundraising groups by exposing those groups as hypocritical for denouncing bailouts but backing Bevin.

McConnell appears increasingly well positioned to win such a fight.

Long disdainful and mistrustful of the media, Tea Party groups and voters are unlikely to be moved by mainstream news reports of what appears to be a flip-flop from Bevin. But when Bevin's own attorney tells ultra-conservative Breitbart News that "as a general matter, if you put your signature on anything, you would be at least acknowledging you don't have a major issue with the content," conservatives are likely to take notice.

The same goes for when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who has been loath to disparage Bevin despite endorsing McConnell with varying degrees of conviction, told The Associated Press on Monday that Bevin's credibility had been wounded.

The outside groups — Senate Conservatives Fund and Madison Project — have not backed away from Bevin, instead interpreting the media's focus on his praise for the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program as "a sign that McConnell's internal polling is sensing Bevin can become a threat of epic proportions," said Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project.

"Voters aren't fooled by these oppo hits coming from the establishment," Horowitz said, referring to the common practice of campaigns leaking damaging material about their opponents to the media. "Instead of being open about their lack of conservative principles, establishment Republicans run to the right in primaries and even try to paint their challengers as phony conservatives.

"There is no conceivable primary challenger who has had an extensive career in the private sector who cannot be tied to some big government policy foisted upon the private economy by people like McConnell over the past few decades."

Rachel Semmel, Bevin's spokeswoman, repeated a similar refrain when pressed on some of his explanations for his signature on a letter that included the phrase "don't call it a bailout."

"This is just another attempt by Mitch McConnell to hide his liberal voting record," Semmel said. "Come Election Day, what voters will remember is that McConnell called the bank bailout the Senate's finest moment."

Semmel said that since Bevin's bailout letter was revealed in Politico last week, the campaign has raised more than $100,000 from about 18,000 people.

It's clear that the outside groups have dug in, and neither they nor Bevin is throwing in the towel, evident Monday when one of the groups provided the Herald-Leader with "oppo" research showing that McConnell sent letters to various federal agencies asking that some of the $787 billion stimulus money from 2009 be spent in Kentucky.

After voting against the stimulus and repeatedly criticizing it, McConnell wrote to the Department of Justice, asking that Kentucky cities be considered for money to hire more police officers; to the Department of Transportation, asking for stimulus money to build specific road and bridge projects; and to the National Endowment for the Arts, seeking to steer money to the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center.

McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore responded by saying that while McConnell "was fighting President Obama's stimulus tooth and nail, Matt Bevin was singing its praises in letters to his investors."

With the law passed by Obama and Democratic majorities, Moore said, it would have been irresponsible for McConnell not to ask for some money for Kentucky.

"Matt Bevin won't understand this, but unlike President Obama, conservatives don't choose which laws to follow," she said. "So Senator McConnell will not disqualify Kentucky from competing with other states for programs he may personally oppose but have been signed into law."

McConnell's aides say they want the fight to go on in Kentucky, forcing outside groups to spend money here instead of Louisiana, where they fear that the groups could continue to prop up candidates not palatable to general election voters.

Shortly after the Herald-Leader broke the news in October of McConnell's desire for a proxy war against Tea Party fundraising groups, McConnell aide Josh Holmes made a reference to the movie A Bronx Tale.

Those groups, Holmes said, had been tearing up GOP primaries just like the biker gang in the film that had been destroying bars before unwittingly walking into a mafia bar and a brutal beating.

"The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell's bar, and he doesn't throw you out, he locks the door," Holmes said at the time.

This week, Holmes said he thought Bevin's bailout letter was the deadbolt, and the groups backing him were in for a surprise.

"It may not be evident to them yet, but they're locked in Kentucky defending a con man and watching their credibility with the conservative community evaporate," Holmes said.

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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