Gunning for McConnell

by Katrina Trinko
A conservative group takes aim at the Senate minority leader.

A group that played a crucial role in Ted Cruz’s primary win is taking on a new challenge this cycle: The Madison Project has made it a top priority to take down the current Republican leadership, and one front in that war is Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin’s primary race against Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

“The problem in Washington, D.C., right now is the current GOP leadership and their unwillingness to fight the big-government policies that are coming down the pike,” says Drew Ryun, the group’s political director and a former deputy director at the Republican National Committee. “That is encapsulated in Mitch McConnell.”

While other top conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, have remained on the sidelines so far in the Kentucky primary, the Madison Project has enthusiastically jumped in, endorsing Bevin and making a $27,000 radio buy in August for an ad attacking McConnell.

It’s a repeat of the group’s strategy in Texas in 2012, when they were the first national conservative organization to endorse Ted Cruz. “The importance of their endorsement in the early days was significant,” says John Drogin, who served as Cruz’s campaign manager and is now the senator’s state director. “When Senator Cruz was still a long-shot, far behind in the polls, Madison Project stood with him because they knew he would stand for conservative principles.”

“That gave Ted some early credibility,” says Ken Emmanuelson, a tea-party activist from Dallas. “That kind of thing can put a guy on the radar, so I’ve always given them props for that.”

But while Cruz wasn’t the establishment candidate in the GOP primary, his establishment-backed rival — Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst — wasn’t an incumbent, much less the top Senate Republican. McConnell is known for his ruthless campaigning, and he has a long track record of victories in Kentucky. His campaign has already vehemently pushed back on attacks claiming that he’s not conservative enough by noting that he has a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. And Rand Paul, a tea-party favorite and Kentucky’s other senator, has already endorsed McConnell.

Drew Ryun is confident, however, that Bevin is the little engine that can, despite a McConnell-campaign poll released last month that showed Bevin trailing McConnell 21 percent to 68 percent. “He’s slightly behind [where Marco Rubio was] at this stage of the campaign, and he’s slightly ahead of Ted [Cruz],” says Ryun. “Where he is right now I actually feel pretty comfortable with it, given the fact that his name recognition is not what it could be in Kentucky.”

For the Madison Project, Bevin’s candidacy is a perfect fit for their twofold mission of transforming Republican leadership and making sure the most conservative candidate possible represents comfortably Republican districts. Republicans, says Daniel Horowitz, the group’s policy director, are “underutilizing” solidly red districts. “You look at the Democrat side, you won’t find any inner city where you have a blue-dog Democrat,” he comments. The group has launched the Madison Performance Index, which compares Republican House members’ voting records, as analyzed by Heritage Action and Club for Growth, with how Republican their district is.

As a result, don’t expect to see the Madison Project playing in purple states or swing districts, although the group won’t definitively rule that out.

The group’s passion for defeating McConnell is grounded in a worry that even conservative stalwarts can’t flourish under the current Republican leadership. Horowitz says activists have asked him what happened to certain conservative politicians, such as Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), after they went to Washington.

“The problem is leadership,” Horowitz argues. “You throw them into a situation where leadership fundamentally doesn’t want to change the status quo . . . we’re never going to get anywhere.”

“The same old people are going to be put into tough situations,” he continues. “We feel if we change leadership, we’ll change the direction of the party, both in the House and the Senate.”

Jim Ryun, chairman of the Madison Project and a former Kansas congressman, recalls vividly the pressure he faced when he opposed GOP House leadership. He voted against Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind, and today he remembers “some calls from the president where somehow we got disconnected when he didn’t agree with what I was going to do.”

The Madison Project isn’t as much of a fundraising powerhouse as some other conservative groups; it raised just under $2 million in the 2012 cycle. But the group is looking to expand their influence significantly in this cycle. “Will we be an 800-pound gorilla this election cycle? No,” Drew Ryun remarks. “But maybe a 400-pound gorilla.”

For the Madison Project, however, there’s less of an interest in pricey TV buys and more of a fascination with how a well-executed ground game can change the outcome of an election. “You have to do such a massive amount of television to even move the political dial incrementally,” says Drew Ryun, whereas “if you put the time and effort into the ground game, you can actually move a political dial, 3, 4, 5 percent in a precinct versus these television buys that are moving it half a percentage point.” Emmanuelson, the tea-party activist from Dallas, says that Ryun is known for helping inexperienced campaign teams with ground-game politics.

Drew Ryun is cautiously optimistic that the GOP could take back the Senate in 2014, but “a Republican majority that is led by Mitch McConnell, frankly, is not that appealing to me.”

Nonetheless, he thinks that 2014 could be a crucial year for conservatives. “2014 has the potential to be like 2010, except on steroids,” Ryun enthuses. And perhaps even more important, “what we do and the races that we win in 2014 will dictate how 2016 unfolds.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.