The campaign of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is ready to take on Matt Bevin, a Republican Kentucky businessman who is expected to announce Wednesday that he will run in the coming primary. McConnell’s campaign, which has long been aware that a tea-party primary challenger could emerge, plans to quickly attack Bevin’s tea-party credentials and define him as a “conman” through radio and TV ads.
“This is a nuisance problem that we just need to put to bed,” says McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. “We have a very, very thick, plentiful opposition-research book on this guy that is just full of disqualifying material.”
“When you look at this guy’s record in business and his personal record, it doesn’t take a long time to realize he’s a fraud,” Benton adds. “It’s not going to be difficult to brand him as that.”
Bevin spokesperson Sarah Durand, who has served as president of the Louisville Tea Party, accused the McConnell campaign of using “smear tactics” and added that McConnell “is too afraid to defend his record of voting for bailouts, amnesty, tax increases, energy mandates, massive new government spending, debt-limit increases, and congressional pay increases.”
Look for the McConnell campaign to focus on Bevin’s Connecticut bell-making firm, Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company. (Fun fact: Bevin Brothers made the bell that rang every time “an angel gets his wings” in It’s a Wonderful Life.) Last year, after the factory, over 180 years old, burned to the ground in a lightning accident, the company received a $100,000 grant from Connecticut. “He accepted this bailout from the governor of Connecticut,” says a McConnell ally. According to the Hartford Courant, another company that was housed in the bell company, P.S.I. Plus (of which Bevin was a minority stakeholder) also received a $100,000 grant from the state. And it won’t help Bevin that there are photos of him with liberal senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) discussing the next step in the aftermath of the factory’s burning down.
“If Mitch McConnell had ever run a business or worked in the private sector, he would recognize what a commendable thing Matt did: He took a nearly bankrupt company, turned it around, saved American jobs, and kept a historic bell-manufacturing company in America,” Durand retorts. According to a source familiar with the state grant, Bevin would have had to personally repay Connecticut if he did not create a certain number of jobs.
Bevin will likely also come under heat for Bevin Brothers’ late payment of taxes. The Middletown Press reported in 2011 that the firm owed $116,684 in back taxes. But a source familiar with the situation says that Bevin didn’t personally become president of the company until August 2011, although he had loaned money to a relative who was running the company in previous years. (Some news reports call Bevin the president of the firm as early as 2008.) “In a year’s time, Matt paid off the tax liens,” the source adds.
McConnell has vulnerabilities of his own. While he received a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2012, other conservative groups were harsher: Club for Growth ranked McConnell 24th in the Senate and gave him a 74 percent rating in 2012, while Heritage Action rates him at 84 percent. (In contrast, Senator Rand Paul has a 100 percent rating from the Club and a 96 percent rating from Heritage Action.) The Club has met with Bevin but at this juncture is only “watching the race,” not actively supporting either candidate, according to spokesman Barney Keller.
Benton brushes off the idea that Bevin could attract serious support from outside groups, which have often helped catapult a lesser-known candidate to victory in GOP primaries. “We do not believe that there are going to be any issues with those groups,” he says. “There’s just no way an outside group is going to be able to support this guy when they see what’s in his record.”
McConnell has an outside group of his own to fire back, if need be: the super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. “We expect Bevin will be a speed bump on the way to the nomination for Senator McConnell,” spokesman Scott Jennings writes by e-mail, adding that, for now, the PAC intends to remain focused on McConnell’s likely Democratic opponent, Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Meanwhile, McConnell has already nabbed Paul’s endorsement. Public Policy Polling reported in May that 70 percent of Kentucky Republicans approved of McConnell and only 20 percent disapproved. “He has the Republican base behind him,” remarks Benton. “I think we have 95 percent of the state legislators. He’s got the endorsement of the entire congressional delegation.”
McConnell, who has met with plenty of tea-party supporters over the years, continues to burnish his tea-party credentials. (One of his significant outreaches to the Tea Party was his hiring of Benton, who had served as campaign manager for Ron Paul’s presidential bid and as the campaign chairman for Rand Paul’s Senate bid.) Today, he meets with the Tea Party Caucus in the Capitol (McConnell helped them obtain the room for the event), and next month tea-party stalwart Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) will host a fundraiser for McConnell.
The goal for McConnell’s campaign, says another McConnell ally, is to ensure that Bevin picks up no more than 30 percent of the vote. “We have a very willing press corps that would love to try to embarrass Mitch” if he won 65 percent of the vote or less, remarks the ally.
For Bevin, the next few weeks are crucial. If he wins significant support in polls — and survives the aggressive onslaught the McConnell campaign will greet him with – Kentucky could well be home to the most heated GOP Senate primary of 2014.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.