At first, the sound of Mitch McConnell attacking Matt Bevin last week hit the ears like the start of a train wreck with the potential to consume the Senate Minority Leader.
Turns out, it was a battle cry.
McConnell caused widespread whiplash last week when he unleashed a blistering attack on Bevin, his Republican primary challenger, just days after the Kentucky senator had signaled he was looking past Bevin to likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Instead, several allies of McConnell and other Senate Republicans say the senator is now planning a two-front war: one against Grimes and the other against the fundraising groups that are supporting Bevin. McConnell's real targets are the Senate Conservatives Fund, which announced its endorsement of Bevin on Oct. 18, Heritage Action for America, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and other outside groups.
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If McConnell can crush Bevin, the thinking goes, he can expose a lack of ideological consistency in the outside groups, allowing him to separate Tea Party voters from Tea Party fundraising groups.
"Leader McConnell will beat his opponent because he is more in line with Kentucky Republicans and in doing so will send a message to the groups that purity for profit is a losing strategy," said Billy Piper, a longtime McConnell ally.
At first glance, McConnell's decision to engage Bevin last week was baffling, begging questions about the wisdom of launching an attack on Bevin so brutal that it might backfire by elevating the Louisville businessman's national profile in a way he has so far failed to do himself.
But McConnell, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other Senate Republicans up for reelection next year, hope to win so big in their primaries that they eviscerate their opponents' financial backers in the process.
"I don't think it was anything to do with Bevin," Rob Jesmers, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said about McConnell's shifting strategy. Bevin is a "proxy" for the outside groups to go after McConnell, he said.
What's different in the 2014 election cycle than last year or even 2010, is that McConnell's NRSC has sought to unify Senate Republicans and take the fight to the fundraising groups instead of trying to appease them.
Last week, NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring engaged in one of his seemingly daily twitter wars, this time with Madison Project director Drew Ryun. Dayspring repeatedly blasted Ryun's father, former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun, for supporting pork-barrel spending in the House, using the example to castigate Ryun and his groups as hypocrites.
"Pretending to be something u are not to raise $ must be hard," Dayspring fired off.
After the federal government shutdown ended Oct. 17, McConnell contacted almost all Senate Republicans to apprise them of his plan, unify the ranks and steel them for the battle ahead.
"There is a growing sense throughout the Republican Party that unless folks start standing up to certain outside groups and exposing them for the frauds that they are, then Republicans will soon achieve permanent minority status in the Senate," said Brian Walsh, Republican strategist and former spokesman for the NRSC.
The first and most visible ally so far in the Senate effort is Alexander, another target of the outside campaign groups.
Alexander, sporting fresh scars from his role in the $3 billion Olmsted dam and lock project included in the final shutdown agreement, has been on his own warpath in Tennessee.
A Washington Post story last Friday noted how Alexander has drawn a line in the sand against primary challenger state Rep. Joe Carr, declaring that he was running hard against the Tea Party "instead of running scared of the Tea Party."
"If all we do is stand around handing each other score cards, we won't get anything done," Alexander told the newspaper. "That's why, in the current health-care debate, I'm not in the shut-down-the-government crowd. I'm in the take-charge-of-the-government crowd, and get something done."
McConnell has fumed for about four years as he watched outside groups back primary challengers who defeated Republican incumbents then lost to Democrats, making his dream of becoming Senate Majority Leader a nightmare.
The decision by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party icon, to become the face of the government shutdown gave McConnell an opening to start pushing back. In an Oct. 11 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, the senator made his move, abruptly departing from the dominant no-compromise message and boasting of his record of making deals with Vice President Joe Biden.
Politically, McConnell's surprise maneuver to insert himself center stage in negotiations to end the stalemate seemed like a way to neutralize attacks from Grimes aimed at "Senator Gridlock." While that was part of the calculation, the move also was the first step on the warpath against Bevin and the fundraising groups, who have painted McConnell as a man who repeatedly compromises conservative principles for personal gain.
When the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Bevin, executive director Matt Hoskins said the group was seeking "a true conservative" who will fight spending, bailouts, and debt.
"We know that winning this primary won't be easy," Hoskins said. "Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power."
The group's relationship with Bevin official, McConnell sounded the charge.
Last Wednesday, a story appeared on the massively popular website BuzzFeed suggesting Bevin had lied on his application for a grant for $100,000 in Connecticut funds to rebuild a factory he owned there that had burned from a lightning strike.
A frenzy followed as McConnell's team set upon Bevin, enlisting local soldiers like Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers and former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and calling on a Connecticut attorney to brand Bevin as a liar and possible criminal.
Given the viciousness of the attack, the logical assumption was that McConnell had been frightened by the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsement and was forced to reverse course. But those familiar with the plan said it was the opening salvo in a new and final battle planned for the primaries of 2014, made possible only when the Tea Party-fueled shutdown made McConnell's hand stronger.
"Winning elections and actually advancing conservative principles is secondary for them to raising money and growing their own power in Washington," Walsh said. "They're bullies who are lining their pockets by misleading conservatives and the way you deal with a bully is to punch them in the mouth, and not run and hide."