Politics & Government

Tea Party opponent may take some of McConnell's focus off race with Grimes

Matt Bevin, a New Hampshire native, has lived in Kentucky since 1999. He and his wife, Glenna, brought their nine children, including four adopted from Ethiopia, to the Capitol.
Matt Bevin, a New Hampshire native, has lived in Kentucky since 1999. He and his wife, Glenna, brought their nine children, including four adopted from Ethiopia, to the Capitol. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's hope for no Republican opponent in next year's U.S. Senate race was dashed Wednesday with the official entry of Tea Party activist Matt Bevin.

Bevin, 46, an investment manager in Louisville, launched his GOP campaign against McConnell at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda with his wife, Glenna, and their nine children — four adopted from Ethiopia.

McConnell now will have to spend time and money to fight Bevin in the May Republican primary while continuing to battle the likely Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, said State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.

Thayer said Bevin "seems like a nice guy, but he should have entered another race and not run against McConnell."

Bevin made it clear he would not be shy in going after McConnell, who is known for pulverizing his opponents.

Bevin pounded away at accusations that the Louisville Republican, who has been in the Senate since 1985, has lost touch with Kentucky, its people and values by voting for higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.

He was referring to Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Bevin noted that McConnell's campaign this week had dubbed him "a nuisance." He said he was going to be "the biggest nuisance" McConnell has ever seen.

Bevin's novice campaign also launched a TV ad that says America deserves better than McConnell's "failed leadership" and started a spartan website, mattblevin.com, seeking donations.

Even before Bevin made his announcement, the McConnell campaign released a TV ad attacking Bevin for accepting a $200,000 taxpayer bailout for companies he owns in Connecticut and charging that Bevin failed to pay taxes on them.

The McConnell ad calls him "Bailout Bevin, not a Kentucky conservative." The campaign also posted the ad online at bailoutbevin.com.

Bevin, a New Hampshire native who has lived in Kentucky since early 1999, said the McConnell ad was typical of "mud-slinging Mitch" and denied that he has ever had a tax problem. McConnell is a native of Alabama.

A biography furnished by Bevin's campaign said he was raised "with strong Christian values" and "the all-American idea I could be anything I wanted to be." He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia and was a captain in the Army.

In Louisville, the biography said, Bevin has founded several firms and has invested in companies with interests ranging from manufacturing to software.

In 2008, it said, Bevin began helping a bell manufacturing company owned by his family. The company was besieged by high taxes and foreign competition and was on the verge of bankruptcy until Bevin became its president and paid off all its debts and back taxes, it said.

Grimes' campaign adviser, Jonathan Hurst, noted that McConnell was quick to attack Bevin.

"Kentuckians are frustrated by Mitch McConnell's lack of leadership, so it should be no surprise that he's turned to bullying members of his own party," Hurst said.

"This is simply the latest in McConnell's political games and demonstrates just how out of touch he is with Kentucky families."

McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, called McConnell "Kentucky's greatest advocate" and said he "fights his heart out for our commonwealth every day."

"Mitch is working hard to bring all Kentuckians — Republicans, Tea Partiers, independents and conservative Democrats — together to stand against the liberal Obama agenda in Washington," Benton said.

McConnell cannot ignore Bevin, especially if Bevin is well-funded, said University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross.

Bevin declined to say how much of his personal wealth he will put into the race. He said he will not have "all the dirty grease that McConnell has." McConnell has raised about $15 million.

No politician wants an opponent, Gross said. "McConnell will have to be careful in pushing too far to the right against Bevin because that could hurt him in the November 2014 general election.

"I think we will continue to see McConnell trying to pulverize his opponents and linking them all to President Obama."

Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley said he thinks McConnell is prepared for opponents in the 2014 primary and general elections.

"There's not a whole lot he is not prepared for," said Lasley. "He probably has enough research on Bevin and Grimes to try to define them before they completely define themselves."

The challenge for Bevin, Lasley said, is "he's not a known commodity. He has to persuade people that he's the best guy on the issues."

Though Bevin has the backing of some Tea Party advocates, he does not have the support of Rand Paul, Kentucky's other U.S. senator, who rode to victory in 2010 on a Tea Party tidal wave.

Also, two national Tea Party groups already have endorsed McConnell.

Paul released a statement Wednesday, saying McConnell is "a proven conservative who stands strong for Kentucky in the face of President Obama's big government agenda in Washington.

"He is a consistent voice against Obamacare and against this administration's war on coal. He has stood up for Kentucky values."

Some Tea Party members have said Paul is backing McConnell because he would need McConnell's support as Senate minority leader should Paul decide to run for president in 2016.

Bryan Miller, with the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, said he likes Bevin over McConnell because "Bevin is more conservative."

Miller said McConnell "was not with the Tea Party and its call for smaller government until he realized that he needs the Tea Party to survive. I think it's too late for him."

Jenean Hampton, chairwoman of the Bowling Green Southern Kentucky Tea Party, introduced Bevin at the Frankfort news conference. She said Bevin is "a firm believer in the power of individual liberty, limited government and constitutional principles."

The United Kentucky Tea Party, the largest group of Tea Party leaders with 14 in the state, also has endorsed Bevin.

Conservative political action committees with big money to offer seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Matt Hoskins, executive director of The Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee in Alexandria, Va., which helps elect conservatives to the U.S. Senate, said in an email that it is "open to supporting Matt Bevin's campaign and will be waiting to see if the grassroots in Kentucky unite behind him."

"The only way to defeat Mitch McConnell is to inspire the grassroots to rise up and fight for their freedoms. We will also be watching to see if Mitch McConnell debates the issues or if he conducts a dirty smear campaign. If McConnell doesn't respect the voters enough to defend his own record, he doesn't deserve to be in the Senate," Hoskins said.

Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth in Washington, D.C., said it met with Bevin months ago, and "we'd like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Sen. McConnell on the issues."

Bevin said at his news conference that people with "iron fists and velvet gloves" offered him promises and threats not to enter the GOP primary. But he did not name anyone. The National Review, a national conservative magazine and online service, reported that McConnell allies pushed Bevin to stay out of the race.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader