Matt Bevin's challenge to McConnell: Game-changer or exhibition game?

07/19/2013 07:43 PM

Matt Bevin, the businessman from Louisville who has been laying the groundwork for a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, is on the verge of announcing his candidacy.

WFPL’s Phillip M. Bailey first reported Friday evening that unnamed tea party sources said Bevin would run against McConnell. And several Republican sources, who also declined to go on the record, told Pure Politics on Friday that Bevin is setting up announcement events next week in cities such as Frankfort on Wednesday and Pikeville on Friday.

Bevin, for his part, has been mum with the media over the last four months as he’s considered running. He didn’t return messages from Pure Politics left with an answering service and on his cell Friday.

McConnell’s campaign was ready, though, issuing a statement to the media within a half an hour of the publishing of Bailey’s article.

“Matthew Griswold Bevin is not a Kentucky conservative, he is merely an East Coast con man,” said the statement from McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton.
“While it is sad to see someone who claims to be a Republican doing Barack Obama’s bidding, his campaign is nothing more than a nuisance. Mitch McConnell will never waiver is his fight for our Kentucky values.”

Sarah Durand, an activist with the Louisville Tea Party, issued a response statement from Bevin, saying he will “shortly be making an announcement about his political future.”

“It is unfortunate that Mitch McConnell is already slinging mud instead of talking about his record. Kentucky voters deserve better,” the statement said. Durand ran two primary campaigns against GOP incumbents in the state House in the May 2012 primaries.

What does it mean?

Bevin’s decision to run for U.S. Senate doesn’t make McConnell’s road to a sixth term any easier.

The question is: How hard does it make it?

“You’re a baseball guy. What do exhibition games mean?” J. Todd Inman, an Owensboro insurance agent and strong Republican and McConnell backer, told me Friday night. “It’s a tune-up.”

A challenge from Bevin, Inman said, “will get some fringe folks and capitalize on maybe some angst and anger” but won’t have any effect on the main event — the fall race that’s likely to be against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state.

Inman said a primary challenger won’t change the fact that McConnell will spend a big chunk of change between now and the May primary. He would have done that anyway in preparation for a tough general election. Independent Republican groups and the McConnell campaign already have spent $1 million on McConnell’s behalf already.

But the Democrats’ hope is that a primary challenge forces McConnell to shift more to the right, allowing McConnell’s Democratic opponent to paint him as grasping at fringe ideas or pandering.

“I think it’s good for us. It forces Senator McConnell to go even further to the right to win this primary,” said Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon. “As conservative as Kentucky is, it’s not a fringe state.”

Democrats already planned to depict McConnell as flip-flopping on issues like the Violence Against Women Act, in which McConnell was for it (in 1993) before he was against it (in 2013). (McConnell said he preferred a version that he believed was stronger.)

Other examples include McConnell supporting a tax increase for the wealthiest Americans in 1990, which he said in a 2010 interview with Pure Politics was “a mistake.” Likewise, he said in the 1980s that the IRS should give extra scrutiny to groups that perform political activities and seek to have non-profit status. Again, on “Meet the Press” this spring, he said his former position was a mistake.

Inman said McConnell, however, should use his change in positions as a strength.

“Some people may say it’s flip-flopping. But it’s just representing the people who have put him there,” he said. “In his more than 25 years in office, the commonwealth has moved and so has he.”

But Democrats already are excited that a top-shelf challenger has emerged in Grimes. And the prospect of McConnell getting drawn into a primary campaign of potential mudslinging gives Democratic activists more hope that the once seemingly politically invincible McConnell could weakened enough by the fall to be brought down in a perfect political storm.

“I don’t know if we can get more fired up than we already are,” Logsdon said. “But I think this will certainly energize us even more.”

Who is Matt Bevin?

Before March, Bevin was an unknown in Kentucky politics. Then tea party activists began buzzing about a Louisville businessman with military experience, deep pockets and a willingness to take on the Senate Republican leader who comes with a reputation for being a tough campaigner.

Over the last four months, Bevin has quietly attended Republican Lincoln Day Dinners and other party functions, including dinners in which McConnell spoke.

But Bevin has seemed more inclined to soak it all in than to work the rooms, network or attract much attention. He’s been more high-profile at tea party meetings.

“He’s been getting pretty active and coming to a bunch of meetings recently,” said Wendy Caswell the former Louisville Tea Party President. The Louisville Tea Party meets once a month.

“He asked the group what they thought of McConnell,” said Caswell, who ran as a Democrat for state representative in 2012. She added that “it’s nice to see a regular person take this on.”

Bevin’s family has owned a bell company in Connecticut for 180 years. The Bevin Bros.‘s East Hampton plant burned down last year after an apparent lighting strike, according to the Hartford Courant . A former U.S. Army captain, Bevin has worked at or run several financial and investment companies.

Earlier this spring, The Hill ran an article about Bevin’s stint from 2001-2002 at a division of Invesco, a company investigated for a “market-timing scheme from 2001 to 2003 that diluted shareholder value for the benefit of large privileged investors.” Bevin, in the article, said he was not involved and ha no knowledge of it.

Tea Party activist David Adams said he hadn’t spoken to Bevin Friday but was aware of Bevin’s plans to run.

“We’ve been working on this a long time,” Adams said of Bevin. “This is a culmination of a lot of conversations.”

Adams, who has called for McConnell to resign, said the Bevin camp is prepared for McConnell’s campaign to go after Bevin’s East Coast roots and background. And he predicted that Bevin would have the resources to counter that.

“Money is always an issue,” Adams said. “it will be a brutal fight. Everybody is ready for that.”

— Political reporter Nick Storm contributed to this report.


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