Will Conservative Big Guns Enter McConnell Race?

by Jonathan Strong

Mitch McConnell is waiting to find out if the other shoe drops.

His primary opponent, Matt Bevin, is a serious threat, but the verdict is still out on whether the conservative big guns – the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund — will help provide the cash that he will probably need to end McConnell’s Senate career.

Bevin got a big boost recently when the Madison Project, chaired by former congressman Jim Ryun and managed day-to-day by his son, Drew, stepped into the race to back the insurgent.

While the Madison Project’s financial backing is important, it’s simply not on the same scale as the Club’s or the Conservative Fund’s; they both donated between $15 and 20 million in the 2012 cycle. Instead, the group is playing an important role behind the scenes as a Bevin evangelist.

Wednesday, Drew Ryun pitched fellow conservatives on backing Bevin, he said in an interview with National Review Online.

For conservatives like Ryun, the issue isn’t McConnell’s voting record, which is relatively conservative, but his actions as the minority leader, where he is criticized for not leading the charge against President Obama aggressively enough. Critics are seizing McConnell’s indecision on whether to call for defunding Obamacare in the next government-spending bill as the newest, best example.

But somewhat surprisingly, the argument that is resonating most in behind-the-scenes conversations isn’t over ideology or strategy. It’s that Bevin is a more viable general-election candidate than McConnell against the young, attractive Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“There is the potential that control of the Senate may come down to the Kentucky Senate race. And the argument we’re making behind the scenes is, do you really want Mitch McConnell’s race – in a state that Mitt Romney won by 23 points – do you want the Kentucky race to be the one when potentially we have a weak candidate?” Ryun told me.

Bevin visited the Club for Growth’s Washington, D.C., headquarters several months before he announced, and Ryun, who flew to Kentucky to see the Bevin operation firsthand in March, says he has impressed in those settings.

But conservative mega-donors will be watching to see whether Bevin can withstand the initial McConnell onslaught. The Kentucky Republican is already running his second television ad tagging his opponent as “Bailout Bevin.” The top groups rigorously analyze their funding priorities, meaning the question will be whether the Kentucky race is the best use of money that could be going elsewhere.