Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in for a rough re-election season in 2014, reports Politico.
An unusual coalition of Democrats and Tea Party activists are teaming up to defeat the five-term senator, with many prominent liberal donors and one left-leaning super PAC telling right-wing groups directly that they will provide up to seven figures of funding to a credible primary challenger.
The plan is simple: Batter McConnell in a primary, making him look weak and an easier target for a big-ticket Democrat to defeat in the Kentucky general vote. Even more appealing, knock him out of the ring entirely: Get a Tea Party challenger strong enough among the Republican base to defeat McConnell outright, then count on the tendency of Tea Party candidates to alienate moderates to deliver the state to Dems.
It’s a risky strategy, one that could potentially backfire and cost the Democrats money and votes. But Tea Party activists seem more than willing to accept the money, and some on the left seem to think it’s their best chance of eliminating one of the GOP’s longest-standing and most influential leaders.
“We are doing a lot of reaching out to some of the Tea Party folks across the state,” Keith Rouda, a field organizer for the left-wing MoveOn.org, told Politico. “What we’re finding — at least in this stage of the race — we’re finding that our interests align. It’s unusual.”
“I guess the fear would be ending up in the Dick Lugar situation where you oust the incumbent and end up with a Democrat,” said Louisville Tea Party president Sarah Durand. “But I really think if Sen. McConnell can’t garner some enthusiasm within the Tea Party, which is going to be very difficult at this point, then he’s going to have a really tough road ahead in this election cycle.”
Big Tea Party money is rallying behind the prospect of a right-wing coup on the senator. Liberty for All, a conservative super PAC, gave money to Tea Party insurgent and freshman Rep. Thomas Massie and is now pledging financial support to the right primary candidate.
That funding is emerging on the left as well. Progress Kentucky, a liberal super PAC, has circulated 22 petitions encouraging Republicans to run against McConnell, but no official Democratic Party organizations (such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the Kentucky Democratic Party) are participating as of yet. That is likely due to the ever-shrewd McConnell efforts to shore-up the state against Tea Party activists that are unhappy with him for voting in favor of the Wall Street bailout and a failure to avert the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on those making more than $450,000 a year.
Democrats have good reason to be wary. McConnell has nearly three decades of experience, connections, and political savvy. He has consistently outmaneuvered his opponents and is not above integrating the barbarian tribes of the Tea Party opposition into his establishment Kentucky empire. As Politico points out, he was able to bring Rand Paul under his wing after Paul defeated McConnell’s handpicked choice for the seat, Trey Grayson, in a vicious primary battle that Grayson lost by more than 23 points. Paul now supports McConnell’s re-election bid, and his former campaign manager now works for – you guessed it – McConnell.
Rep. Massie, an acolyte of former libertarian congressman Ron Paul , was originally suspected as a potential challenger to McConnell, but has since made “emphatically” clear he will not run against the senator. He is even appearing at a McConnell fundraiser in February.
Other prominent Republicans such as former gubernatorial candidate Phil Moffett have shown no desire to take on the senator.
John Kemper, a failed 2011 Republican candidate for Kentucky state auditor, is leading the charge among the Tea Party to find a replacement for McConnell – even going so far as to hint he could be that challenger.
“I know [the Tea Party is] highly motivated for a change,” Kemper told Politico. “We’ve had 30 years of Sen. McConnell here, and this last fiscal cliff deal really pushed some people over the edge and motivated people to actually do something about him.”
Scott Hofstra, Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots chairman, says that “I’m not worried about putting up a weak challenger at all. It will be a strong challenger. … The Tea Parties in this state are very dissatisfied with Mitch McConnell’s leadership, and given a good, solid candidate, I imagine the tea party groups will support that candidate.”
Without a credible primary challenger who could create a statewide anti-McConnell backlash, the strategy may never get off the ground.
It could also backfire by giving McConnell an easy victory and a chance to paint Tea Party opponents as hapless opportunists fueled by liberal money, reinforcing the mainstream Republican stronghold in that state.
They may also be jumping the gun. Democrats still have no candidate of their own, but possible entrants to the race include Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes and actress Ashley Judd.