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.
Bevin did three events on his first day of campaigning. A few dozen people — including a woman wearing a McConnell sticker — attended the first two events in Frankfort and Newport (near Cincinnati), and about 100 people showed up at the third event, in Louisville. Not bad numbers for a Wednesday — a day when people with jobs tend to be doing them — but also not numbers that suggest Bevin currently has serious momentum. At the events, the campaign passed out swag, including signs reading “Matt Bevin, Conservative Republican for U.S. Senate” and small bells — Bevin is president of the only bell-manufacturing company remaining in North America, Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company in Connecticut — that attendees occasionally ring when Bevin speaks. Later on, Bevin tells me, “I’ve never been a member of a tea party.”
That evening, after the campaigning was done for the day, I met Bevin at his house. Bevin, his wife, Glenna, and their nine kids live in a gracious home: Rose bushes and an ivy-twined tree thrive on the front lawn, and white Colonial-style pillars frame the home’s entrance. When I arrive, Bevin is watering potted plants around his front door while talking on the phone. He has changed from his campaign outfit — khakis, and a navy-blue jacket — to gray shorts and a button-down shirt.
As I say hello, a child warily eyes me from behind the glass front door. But as soon as I come in, the kids couldn’t be friendlier. They have been remarkably well behaved all day, standing and politely listening as their dad delivered three speeches in a row. To judge by their facial expressions, there’s a chance that they were actually paying attention. Which would be a considerable accomplishment, given that Bevin delivered essentially the same speech at all three events. And the kids weren’t the only ones who heard it more than once; some of the people at Bevin’s second event had also been at the first one.
When I enter the Bevin home, I sense an oddly missing quality. As with what Sherlock Holmes termed “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime,” something that ought to be happening isn’t. I quickly realize that the oddity is how spectacularly uncluttered the house is for being home to nine kids who range in age from three to 14. No perilous welter of stray toys greets me, and I don’t have to watch where I’m walking in order not to trip, except to make sure that I don’t accidentally step on the small, fluffy dog who is eagerly greeting me.
The Bevin home feels a bit like what you would get if Jon and Kate Plus Eight did an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition episode. Everything is supersized to accommodate the large family. The dining room table is big, and a half-moon curved counter in the kitchen can seat up to ten people. The Bevins drive a twelve-passenger van that Glenna Bevin has dubbed “Apollo 12.” Four of the Bevin children are adopted, from Ethiopia. The most recent additions to the clan were three orphaned siblings. “We thought, ‘Six, nine, what’s the difference?’” Bevin says. “At that point, we said, ‘Let’s just open our home a little wider.’”
The Bevins had a daughter, Brittiney, who died at 17 in a car accident in 2003. “Brittiney had this heart to help other people,” Bevin recalls. “She wanted to be a missionary, wanted to work with children and orphans, and she wanted that since the time she was about 14 years old.” She accompanied Bevin to the opening of a computer academy in India that the family had sponsored, and she cut the ribbon. Now the family funds a nonprofit, Brittiney’s Wish, in her memory; it provides financial assistance to young adults ages 15 to 20 who want to go on missionary trips, both within and outside the United States.
Bevin’s own career background is mainly in investment management. For four years after college (funded in part by an ROTC scholarship), Bevin served in the Army, an experience that affected how he views foreign policy.
“For some people in our party, there’s not a war they don’t love,” Bevin observes. “That’s wrong. Because it’s not their sons, it’s not their dads, it’s not their nephews who are dying. It’s not.” He opposes U.S military intervention in Syria, for instance, saying, “We don’t have a dog in that hunt.”
Bevin would prefer to leave gay marriage and abortion up to the states to decide, although he says that if a federal bill banning abortion (such as the recent House bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks) came up during his time in the Senate, he would vote for it.
But it’s the fiscal issues that animate Bevin most. He mentions these when he discusses his decision to donate to a Democrat, Wendy Caswell – a founder of the Louisville Tea Party – in her race for the Kentucky state house (A Bevin aide interjects that no Republican was running in this particular race.) “She and I disagree on almost every social issue,” Bevin says. “But that’s okay, because where our nation is at a crossroads, and where I intend to execute this race, is on fiscal issues.” (Caswell lost to the imcumbent in that primary election.)
Beyond hoping to beat McConnell, Bevin also hopes his bid will inspire others to take on senators such as Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), lawmakers who, in his view, aren’t sufficiently serious about fixing the country’s fiscal problems. “We need people who actually will do something to help reverse the decline,” he says with fervor. “We are on a fiscally unsustainable course, and no one is trying to turn the boat around. We’re all on the Niagara River, we can hear the falls coming, we can feel the spray, and we’re smugly looking over at the Democrats who are rowing ten times a minute toward the brink. We’re rowing five and think that we’re better than them. Nobody’s trying to turn the boat around. Nobody’s trying to get to the shore.”
He would like to see a wide swath of the United States Senate replaced.
“Whether it’s an Enzi or an Alexander or a McConnell or a McCain or a Graham or a Hatch on the Republican side of the fence, or a Schumer, a Leahy, or a Durbin on the Democratic side, they’re all birds of a feather,” Bevin emphasizes. “They’ve all been there too long. They need to be plucked and sent home.”
And as we talk in his home, surrounded by his family, Bevin is adamant that he’s running for the sake of the country, not for himself. “I’ve got a wonderful life, I’ve got a wonderful family,” he says. “I don’t need this for me personally. If elected, the job will provide my family the lowest income we’ve had in recent years, and it will come at a greater personal expense than other jobs. I’m sure George Washington, during the winter of 1776, would have much sooner had his feet up on the hearth at Mount Vernon than freezing his keister off with a bunch of guys who had no shoes because they had to eat them at Valley Forge. I’m sure he didn’t do that for fun, either.”
“History calls upon people to stand up and be counted,” Bevin concludes. “And this is a time, and this is a place, and it needs to be done. “
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.