Bluegrass Blues for Tea Party in Kentucky

From Covington, Kentucky

As the calendar turned to 2014, Tea Party backers put a bull’s-eye squarely on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, rallying behind his GOP primary opponent here in the Bluegrass State, hoping it would be one of a series of big Tea Party victories in primaries this mid-term election year.

But the campaign of Louisville businessman Matt Bevin seemingly foundered in recent weeks, as the GOP Establishment in Kentucky has pushed back hard against the Tea Party favorite, with polls showing McConnell leading Bevin by over 30 points in the GOP Senate primary.

Bevin’s problems were showcased during one of his Friday stops on a bus tour around the state, as recounted by the Associated Press:

“Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin stopped to campaign at the state Capitol on Friday, but no one was there to see him,” the dispatch read, as only reporters were on hand when Bevin’s campaign bus rolled into Frankfort.

When I caught up with Bevin in Kentucky’s third largest county, he remained optimistic that his message of change could get through to voters in the final days of this campaign.

“Most critically, I’m the only one in this race who has created a job that the taxpayers haven’t paid for,” Bevin said, as he argued that leaders in both parties were probably rooting against his candidacy.

“Don’t think for a second that Harry Reid isn’t just as anxious for Mitch McConnell to keep his job as Mitch is,” Bevin said to me before a gathering of the Kenton County GOP, referring to the Senate Majority Leader.

But at the dinner in the aptly-named “Thoroughbred Room” of a hotel in Covington, it was obvious that Bevin’s message had not made dramatic inroads, as Republicans expressed aggravation that Bevin was even running against McConnell in the primary.

“It’s just lunacy,” grumbled Ted Smith, a member of the Kenton County GOP executive committee, as he derisively labeled McConnell opponents “Teapots.”

“These guys are no better than Democrats,” Smith said, ladling out jab after jab at Bevin’s backers. “I’m no fan of the Tea Party in the least.”

Outside the hotel, a few Bevin supporters waved signs to cars passing by, wearing shirts with the message “Ditch Mitch,” hoping that Bevin could find a way to create some late election momentum.

“He’s for following the Constitution,” argued Phil Jones of Burlington, Kentucky, who said he had never done any volunteer work for a candidate before Bevin took on McConnell.

“I’m typically not involved in this sort of stuff, but I think this is a pretty important election,” Jones added, standing outside on a chilly, damp evening in a short sleeve shirt.

But Bevin’s campaign stumbled over the last six weeks, the low point marked by revelations that the political neophyte had spoken at a rally to legalize cockfighting; in recent days, Sen. McConnell seemed to focus more on Democrats than on his GOP primary challenger.

Bevin though wasn’t conceding defeat early.

“This is an opportunity for the voters to come out and make history,” Bevin said of Tuesday’s GOP primary, as he rattled off Tea Party groups that he expected would turn out Kentucky voters to back him at the ballot box.

“I’m one vote, but I’m pretty sure I know which way I’m going on that one,” Bevin said with a big smile as he maneuvered his wife and kids to their seats at the GOP dinner.

But the Republican Establishment had other ideas for Kentucky’s GOP primary; even with a win, McConnell is expected to face a tough race in November against likely Democratic Party nominee Alison Grimes.

Bevin argues McConnell will lose that race; early polls show McConnell and Grimes neck and neck.

For now, McConnell seems poised to win his primary – then we’ll see if Republicans are able to put aside their differences and unite behind the Senate GOP Leader for November.