Political Paddock: McConnell ready to move past primary, but GOP repair work awaits

Herald-Leader Political writerApril 28, 2014 

Republicans Tea Party

Matt Bevin, who is hoping to unseat Mitch McConnell is next month's Senate primary, has assailed his fellow Republican's campaign tactics.

TIMOTHY D. EASLEY — AP

Matt Bevin appeared agitated as he tried to get closer to Mitch McConnell.

When two of the Senate minority leader's staffers blocked Bevin's path to McConnell at Saturday night's Fayette County Reagan Day dinner, Bevin called them "pathetic."

When a Herald-Leader reporter approached Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in the May 20 GOP primary, he responded with a stream of criticism.

Bevin then went to the other side of a crowd of people gathered to shake McConnell's hand, but McConnell aide Terry Carmack stepped between them.

As the senator was pulled away in the other direction, Bevin turned around, exasperated: "Did you notice the arrogance? Seriously?"

Later, McConnell seemed to take a victory lap of sorts when he spoke to the crowd of GOP faithful.

Having just been endorsed by the American Conservative Union, McConnell told the audience that there were two kinds of people in politics: "Those that want to make a point and those that want to make a difference.

"And in order to make a difference, you have to win. Winners make policy, and losers go home."

After his speech, McConnell refused to speak about Bevin, repeatedly telling the Herald-Leader that he was "very confident I'm going to be the nominee of my party in the fall election."

McConnell might be ready to move on, but he has some repair work to do first.

After he left the dinner Saturday night, all candidates for elected office were allowed to introduce themselves. When Bevin stood up, he said jokingly that some people in the audience might be "aware" of his opponent, then he started pulling out direct mail pieces from his pockets and, in a calm tone, assailed McConnell's campaign tactics.

"We're here tonight at the Reagan Day dinner, and the 11th commandment of Ronald Reagan was that when we run campaigns, we do it in a civil fashion among Republicans, that we don't besmirch Republicans," Bevin said. "And for those of you in the room who've received the kinds of things that I've received in the mail, who received these kinds of mailers, this is exactly what's killing our party."

On that note, about a third of the room applauded.

"You deserve better than this," Bevin said. "I'm giving you an option after 30 years. I'd appreciate your consideration."

It seems unlikely that a majority of Republican voters in Kentucky will give Bevin that consideration, but the percentage of Republicans who wind up backing Bevin is of major importance to McConnell's future.

Likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes and McConnell are running neck and neck, so McConnell cannot afford for disaffected Republicans to stay home in November.

Before the dust can settle from the primary, McConnell will have to undertake a herculean effort to unify his party behind him, and there are a lot of raw nerves.

Bevin, who plans to release a jobs plan Wednesday in Hazard, has said throughout the campaign that if he gets 40 percent of the vote, "it's over." He might be right, but for different reasons than he thinks.

The more support Bevin gets, the more evidence there is that McConnell will have a Republican problem in the fall.

Republicans vary on what number Bevin could reach that would be most damaging to McConnell. Some of them say 33 percent is the "magic number," and others say the senator will be fine as long as Bevin gets anything less than 40 percent.

The McConnell campaign acknowledges that it has work to do to make sure the party is unified, but it looks at recent history as proof it can be done.

On May 18, 2010, the day Rand Paul beat McConnell-backed Trey Grayson in the GOP Senate primary, Public Policy Polling released a survey that showed 43 percent of Kentucky Republicans "explicitly" saying they would not vote for Paul in the fall.

"The likely Rand Paul victory in the Kentucky Republican primary today should give Democrats a very good chance of winning in the fall because supporters of Trey Grayson, Paul's main opponent, really don't like him," the liberal-leaning polling firm wrote at the time.

Six months later, Paul won in a landslide over Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, with exit polls showing that 91 percent of Republicans voted for Paul.

"Sen. McConnell wants to earn the vote of every Kentuckian, and that includes people who may have been supportive of Matt Bevin's candidacy during the primary," said Josh Holmes, a senior adviser to McConnell. "We successfully brought conservatives back together after a contentious primary in 2010, and we believe that with hard work, we'll have similar success in 2014."

A key hope is that disgruntled Bevin supporters will decide that "the consequences of allowing Barack Obama's allies to select Alison Lundergan Grimes as Kentucky's next senator are too great for any conservative to ignore," Holmes said.

As McConnell closed his remarks Saturday night, he joked as he often does that he's the only Republican running in Kentucky "that every crazy liberal's heard of."

"I'll tell you this, my friends: I'm proud of my enemies, and I wouldn't trade them for anybody else's," he said.

McConnell might be proud of his liberal enemies, but if he hopes to win in November, he has a lot of friendships to make and mend.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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