FRANKFORT — Many of Kentucky's Tea Party leaders are plotting a strategy to defeat U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary, a spokesman for a group calling itself the United Kentucky Tea Party said Tuesday.
Tea Party groups in the state are so dissatisfied with McConnell that "we are working on a battle plan with the ultimate goal to retire him next year," said John T. Kemper III of Lexington, a spokesman for the group.
Kemper's comment came a day after the group, which describes itself as a roundtable of leaders from more than a dozen Tea Party groups in Kentucky, issued a news release warning McConnell that "we will not allow our message or movement to be co-opted for political purposes."
Kemper, a developer who lost a bid for state auditor in 2011 and a bid for Congress in 2010, would not identify any potential opponent for McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, but acknowledged that he is "probably on a short list of folks."
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Meanwhile, an out-of-state Super PAC expressed interest in helping "the right candidate" defeat McConnell. Last year, Liberty For All spent almost $700,000 to help elect Republican Thomas Massie to Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District seat.
Preston Bates, executive director of Liberty For All, said in an email Tuesday that McConnell is "anything but a tea partier" and is "that special politician who could unite libertarians, independents, anti-war Democrats, everyone" against him.
"Should the right candidate emerge — be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent — Liberty For All will remain committed to electing those dedicated to more civil liberties, more economic freedom, and freeing America from corporate influence," Bates said.
Liberty for All is primarily funded by John Ramsey, a college student from Nacogdoches, Texas, who is armed with an inherited fortune.
McConnell, who has represented Kentucky since 1985, is seeking re-election next year. So far, no one has announced to challenge him. He already has a $7 million campaign war chest and the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Bowling Green, a Tea Party favorite.
In a news release sent by email late Monday, the United Kentucky Tea Party said McConnell and state Republican leaders are being "intellectually dishonest" by calling anyone associated with McConnell's campaign a Tea Party leader.
"The Tea Parties in Kentucky are led by local grassroots individuals, not by any national organization," the statement said. "Any representation otherwise by the Republican Party leadership of Kentucky or Senator McConnell and his surrogates is inconsistent with the truth and will be vigorously and publicly disputed every step of the way."
Kemper said the group was referring to McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton.
Benton led the 2010 general election campaign of Paul, who rode the Tea Party wave to defeat Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election and the McConnell-backed candidacy of then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the Republican primary election.
Benton also managed the 2012 presidential bid for Paul's father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Benton is married to one of Ron Paul's granddaughters.
Asked about the news release, Benton said he has received a "wonderful reception" from grassroots groups as he has travelled the state on behalf of McConnell.
"Leader McConnell is a great friend of the Kentucky Tea Parties and is committed to giving them a seat at the table and bringing their voices to Washington," Benton said.
Kemper said he finds it "humorous" that Benton, in his email messages to Republicans across the state about the McConnell campaign, uses the greeting "Dear Patriot."
The latest example of that was last weekend, when Benton sent out an email about President Obama's proposals on gun control.
"Dear Patriot, You and I are literally surrounded," Benton wrote. "The gun grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out assault on the Second Amendment."
Concern about McConnell by several Tea Party members intensified this month after McConnell brokered a fiscal cliff deal that killed planned income tax hikes on most Americans but postponed deep federal spending cuts.
Cathy Flaig, former president of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, which covers Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties, said Tuesday her group "willingly signed" the news released issued by the United Kentucky Tea Party.
"Truth be told, most Tea Party members I know in Kentucky are polite to Sen. McConnell but not enthusiastic at all about him," Flaig said. "My question is, what has he done for Kentucky?"
An issue of strong interest in Northern Kentucky, she said, is the building of a new bridge across the Ohio River that will require tolls.
"The federal government can build a bridge in Afghanistan in eight months without tolls. Why not in Northern Kentucky?" she said. "He's Senate minority leader. It seems like he could do something to help Kentucky."
Flaig said she does not know whether the Tea Party will find a candidate next year to run against McConnell.
"I just know he's not as well liked as he thinks he is," she said.
Hans Marsen, state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots in Elizabethtown, said he's aware that several Tea Party groups in Kentucky have formed the United Tea Party of Kentucky and issued Tuesday's news release.
"The bottom line is that, he can believe it or not, there is not great support for the senator among Tea Party members in Kentucky," Marsen said.
"It would be good to see an alternative to him on the 2014 Republican primary ballot," he said.