Louisville, Ky. — This isn’t the first time Matt Bevin has been fed up with the Republican establishment.
Last week, the Kentucky businessman announced he would challenge Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in next year’s Republican Senate primary. This will be Bevin’s first entry into the political rodeo. But the longtime Republican has often been a frustrated party member.
“I have a Peroutka for President T-shirt from 2004 in my drawer,” Bevin tells National Review Online in an interview at his Louisville home. He’s referring to Constitution-party candidate Michael Peroutka, for whom he cast his ballot in the general election rather than George W. Bush. “In ’04, I was just so fed up with the choices that we were given,” he says.
During the 2008 election, Bevin recalls, his brother sent him some memorable campaign gear. It was “one of the funniest T-shirts I’ve ever had,” he said: It bore the slogan, “We’re Screwed ’08.”
“This was when we had McCain and Obama as the choice,” he says. “We were going to get basically a socialist moderate-type person either way.” He didn’t see a third-party candidate that he liked as a “good viable alternative,” though. “I held my nose,” he says, and cast a ballot for McCain.
Nor is Bevin much pleased with today’s congressional Republicans. “Of 535 members of Congress, I would bet there are two dozen truly conservative people,” he estimates. “We are not being well lead in either the House or the Senate in the Republican party.” He does admire Senator Rand Paul (who has endorsed McConnell), and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and, perhaps most of all, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “I love Ted Cruz,” he enthuses. Indeed, “someone like a Ted Cruz” would be his dream pick for a Republican Senate leader to replace McConnell. “I think he could handle it. It would be refreshing.”
In a heated primary, the outspokenly conservative Cruz beat Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, who was the GOP-establishment favorite. The Cruz team slammed Dewhurst as someone who would “go along to get along.” During his relatively short tenure in the Senate so far, Cruz has shown himself more willing to operate as a conservative outsider than a team player. That’s the kind of role Bevin envisions for himself if he is sent to Washington.
Another politician Bevin admires is Representative Thomas Massie (R., Ky.). “Thomas Massie is awesome — I love Thomas,” Bevin gushes. “He’s one of the nine guys who had the cojones to vote against John Boehner” for House speaker, he explains. Massie might not share Bevin’s passion for replacing McConnell, though. Earlier this year, asked about the possibility of a tea-party challenge to McConnell, Massie told Kentucky radio station WFPL: “My advice to people who are frustrated with Washington is that there’s probably a better way to spend your time, effort, money, blood, sweat, and tears than trying to have Senator McConnell unelected. I think there are a lot better chances and better use of your time in terms of changing Washington, D.C.”
No matter — Bevin is prepared to take on the establishment by himself. In his speech announcing his candidacy last week, delivered in the rotunda of the Kentucky state capitol, Bevin said: “Never before in American political history has the leader of a party lost a primary election. Never. But never before has it been so important to make that happen.” But, McConnell’s record, he argued, particularly on immigration, spending, and taxes, is unacceptable.
There is no doubt that Bevin faces a steep uphill climb to beat McConnell. Kentucky radio host Mandy Connell flirted this week with the idea that the McConnell–Bevin race would be analogous to “a truck running over a bunny.” (McConnell is the vehicle and Bevin the roadkill, in case you were wondering.) A poll conducted by the GOP firm Wenzel Strategies released the day after Bevin’s announcement showed him trailing McConnell by 39 points. McConnell, as a five-term senator, naturally has a longstanding relationship with the Kentucky Republican establishment and a significant fundraising advantage — as well as the assistance of a super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, that will support his candidacy.