Democrats Push Tea Party Primary Challenger to Mitch McConnell

DSCC officials pushing Tea Party candidate, trying to make trouble for minority leader

Matt Bevin / AP
August 5, 2013

Democratic leadership has a new favorite contestant in the Kentucky Senate race—and it’s not Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Since conservative Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin announced he would challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in the Kentucky GOP primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Senate Democratic leadership have been wryly boosting Bevin on Twitter and promoting conservative criticism of McConnell.

DSCC deputy executive director Matt Canter has tweeted about McConnell more than 50 times since Bevin announced his candidacy on July 24—many of these tweets promoting articles or narratives that are supportive of Bevin and question McConnell’s conservative bona fides.

Canter has criticized McConnell over a congressional effort to defund Obamacare. The campaign is popular with many conservatives, while others say it would lead to an unpopular government shutdown that would be blamed on Republicans.

"I think Matt Bevin would like to debate whether Mitch McConnell is supporting Mike Lee's [letter] to defund Obamacare. Don't u?" Canter asked Republican strategist Brian Walsh on July 25.

In another tweet, Canter called on McConnell to respond to Bevin’s questions about whether the Senate minority leader supports the defund effort.

"In other [Kentucky Senate] news, Tea Partier Matt Bevin has a question for McConnell today that he is refusing 2 answer," Canter wrote, linking to a Daily Caller column by Bevin.

Justin Barasky, national spokesman for the DSCC, tweeted about McConnell over 80 times since Bevin entered the race, promoting headlines from the Courier-Journal such as "Matt Bevin passes early test as a Sen. Mitch McConnell's primary opponent," "Mr. McConnell has tried to cozy up to the tea party — but it hasn’t cozied back" and "Tea Party favorite says McConnell is not a true conservative."

The flood of attention on the race from the DSCC hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans.

"At a certain point, it's clear that LINO (leader in Name only) Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer have decided that defeating Mitch McConnell is a bigger priority than protecting the Democratic majority," National Republican Senatorial Committee strategist Brad Dayspring said. "If that isn't the case, Democratic political operatives have gone off script and have allowed their frustration with Mitch McConnell's effectiveness as a rival to cloud their better political judgment."

The DSCC did not respond to request for comment.

Republicans claim Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) press office has morphed into an unofficial headquarters for the Democrats’ anti-McConnell effort. Reid’s communication director Adam Jentleson’s Twitter page often trumpets conservative criticism of McConnell.

"Where does Sen. McConnell stand?" asked Jentleson on July 25, referring to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R., Fla.) speech with Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Ted Cruz (R., Texas) about defunding Obamacare.

"‘RedState... reported that McConnell’s office has begun pressing other R[epublican]s to back off Lee’s aggressive strategy [on Obamacare defunding]," wrote Jentleson on July 29.

Jentleson also tweeted a RedState quote asking conservatives to call Senate offices to find out where McConnell stands on the defunding campaign, and jabbed the minority leader over a vote on Egypt aid and allegations that he is losing control of his caucus.

In light of recent polls showing Lundergan Grimes and McConnell in a dead-heat, Democrats stand to benefit from a drawn-out and bloody primary between McConnell and Bevin.

Democrats have at times supported Republican primary candidates that they view as "weaker," most notably Todd Akin in the 2012 Missouri Senate race. Democrats reportedly pumped over $1.5 million into Akin’s primary bid, running ads that portrayed him as the true conservative in the race. Akin won the GOP nomination, but lost the race to Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill after his infamous "legitimate rape" remark.

While Bevin currently lags behind the minority leader by around 40 points, a nasty primary fight could cut into McConnell’s resources for the general election and potentially alienate some conservative Republicans.

If McConnell moves further to the right to fend off primary criticism, that could also open the minority leader up to fresh attacks from Democrats later on.

The relationship between McConnell and Reid has grown increasingly combative as Democrats become more fixated on the Kentucky race. Reid pushed forward a floor vote on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R., Ky.) proposal to end aid to Egypt last week, in what some saw as an effort to drive a wedge between Paul and McConnell, a long-time supporter of foreign aid.

Paul has been a key McConnell campaign ally, helping defend him against attacks from the right.

"Big question for the day: how will Senator McConnell vote on Senator Paul's amendment to cut off aid to Egypt?" Jentleson tweeted the morning of the vote.

McConnell ended up backing Paul’s proposal in the final seconds. The amendment failed 13 to 86, with the majority of Republicans voting to kill it.

"It's an open secret at this point that Harry Reid is more interested in undercutting McConnell's reelection efforts than in legislating," one Senate Republican aide told the Washington Free Beacon before the vote. "If he agrees to bring up the Paul Amendment, that's almost certainly why."

GOP sources say Reid’s office has been pushing the narrative that McConnell is losing control of his caucus. And while non-leadership Republicans acknowledge a breakdown of trust between the GOP establishment and more conservative members, they also suggest the extent of the feud is exaggerated.

"It’s like a baseball or football team," one non-leadership Republican aide said. "We’re all on the same side but we play different positions."

Representatives for McConnell’s office and Reid’s office did not comment.

While Democrats could benefit from a drawn-out fight between McConnell and Bevin, some Republicans see a bright side to the DSCC fixation on the Kentucky race.

"I hope they keep their keep their obsession with this going," a non-leadership GOP aide said. "I think it’s a big waste of their time and money."

Dayspring said the DSCC’s focus on McConnell has led it to ignore vulnerable Democrats, such as Sens. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) and Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), and neglect recruit efforts.

"When our counterparts at the DSCC spend hours upon hours per day obsessing over Mitch McConnell instead of Mary Landrieu or Mark Pryor (which has been the case every day in July), great for us, terrible for them," he said.