Sam Youngman

Political Paddock: Matt Bevin strives to get his name to ring a bell with voters

Matt Bevin, left, and Mitch McConnell
Matt Bevin, left, and Mitch McConnell Herald-Leader

MOREHEAD — The Christmas parade route was less than a mile long, so Matt Bevin walked it what seemed like a dozen times.

Well after his nine adorable kids had finished the parade in the bed of a truck, throwing candy from the sides of a "Matt Bevin for Senate" sign, Bevin was still working crowds, ducking into stores after the parade crowd was gone.

"Just kick the tires on that," Bevin told folks after handing them his campaign brochure.

Along the way, he found more than a few willing listeners, not an easy trick in the Democratic stronghold of Rowan County. Almost to a person, the Republicans who talked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's primary challenger were intrigued, sick of McConnell but unaware Bevin existed until they shook his hand and took a brochure.

Shannon Malone was one of those people.

After the floats had moved on and the lights had gone out, Bevin popped into Studio 172 Hair Salon, where a couple of regulars were getting their hair done on a Friday evening.

Bevin, the owner of Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co., which makes bells, was animated, telling the small group of women how his company made the bell that signifies Clarence got his wings in It's a Wonderful Life.

Jumping toward the door, Bevin rang the store-bought bells hanging on the shop's door, looking back at the store's owners and customers as the clickety-clack of the plastic bells hung in the air.

"What is that?! That's Chinese, that's what that is," Bevin said, shaking the plastic bells before bouncing back across the shop to ring a Bevin Brothers bell. "There. There. That sounds like Christmas."

But Malone wasn't sold on the need for new bells. Instead, she was just about sold on voting for Bevin.

"I don't like McConnell," Malone said, saying that the state's senior senator had been in office long enough and that she had first heard of Bevin only minutes earlier when his wife, Glenna, had come by the salon.

Walking to the town's convention center from Malone's shop, light years from McConnell's war against groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, Bevin acknowledged that while Republicans might share his dislike of McConnell, they largely have no idea who Bevin is.

"I think that's probably true at this point," Bevin said. "More than 51 percent of people who meet me change their minds. That's all I need. I just need to meet enough of them.

"You're not going to meet 175,001 people by doing this, but you'll meet some. And they know people. But you also gotta have ads. That's what money's for. That's why we're raising the big bucks."

Last Thursday morning, he was raking it in.

Bevin has got a lot of bells, and he and three of his young sons — two of them among the four children he adopted from Ethiopia — were ringing them for the Salvation Army, a client of Bevin Brothers, in front of a Louisville Kroger.

The kids were hard to say no to, but few people recognized Bevin. One supporter who recognized him said he hoped Bevin would win, then suggested that he should really consider a run against Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville.

Though Bevin guessed he and his boys raised about $300 for charity that morning, his campaign's war chest has been another story, the "big bucks" elusive in the last quarter and his campaign kept afloat by the more than $600,000 of his own money he put in and the anemic $220,000 he raised.

"I know the money matters, it does, and it's coming and I'm humbled by it," he said.

Bevin said Monday that his end-of-the-year report — the quarter ends Dec. 31 — will be "certainly far better than my last quarter."

Will folks be surprised by the number he puts up when the Federal Election Commission reports are due?

"Probably not," Bevin conceded.

And he is probably done spending his own money on the race, repeating his belief that "the people who attempt to finance their way into office are rarely successful."

"If the people of Kentucky don't feel this is a battle worth fighting, both financially and with their vote, then it's not a battle that I'll win," Bevin said.

While Bevin and his allies are betting on a late break — a possibility Team McConnell is keeping an eye out for — this quarter would seem to be the one in which Bevin's fundraising needs to match the grass-roots support he claims.

This was the quarter in which Bevin picked up the endorsement of the Senate Conservatives Fund, or SCF, igniting the start of a war that McConnell has declared on Bevin as a proxy fight against groups like the SCF. Bevin's name might not have been in the headlines of those national news stories, but he was almost always in the story.

A big fourth quarter would allow Bevin to be on the air going into the late winter and early spring ahead of the May 20 primary, introducing himself to primary voters.

"Ads will be absolutely imperative, and we will be doing plenty of it as we are coming down the stretch," Bevin said.

In defending his relative unknown status, Bevin is quick to make comparisons between himself and U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, but his favorite comparison is McConnell.

Bevin said he had studied McConnell's campaign history, and he saw similarities between his run against the senator and McConnell's first campaign in 1984 against Walter "Dee" Huddleston.

"He never led the guy," Bevin said. "He was never expected to win. He was the upstart."

Bevin and McConnell aides note that the challenger already has spent about $600,000 on ads, going up against a massive onslaught McConnell unleashed to unceremoniously welcome Bevin to the race.

To Team McConnell, Bevin's inability to break through underscores what they see in polling, which is the more conservative the sample, the stronger McConnell's support. In other words, it's hard to outflank McConnell on his right.

More than a couple Republicans Bevin asked to "kick the tires" in Morehead said afterward that they liked McConnell but would keep an open mind.

McConnell's campaign, having taken a flamethrower to Bevin after a misrepresentation about whether he was educated at MIT and paperwork for a Connecticut state grant to rebuild the bell factory after it was struck by lightning, is standing ready to bring even bigger guns if Bevin shows movement.

"Matt Bevin's greatest asset is being unknown," Allison Moore, a McConnell spokeswoman, said. "If Bevin's campaign ever became relevant, Kentuckians would never let him survive misrepresentations like featuring a fake MIT degree on his résumé, or lying on a government application to receive a $100,000 taxpayer bailout, which is the tip of the iceberg with this guy."

But to Bevin, the takeaway from spending so much money and not breaking through is that nobody is even thinking about the Senate race right now.

"We've got five months to go," Bevin said. "Most people, 90 percent of people, aren't paying attention to this. They will."