Angry bluegrass roots and strong rivals spell trouble for Mitch McConnell in Kentucky

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In Washington, Mitch McConnell is the Senate Republicans’ floor general and a major power broker. Back home in Kentucky, however, he is possibly the most endangered member of the GOP Senate caucus ahead of next year’s midterm elections, as he tries to balance pleasing vociferous right-wing constituents with his role as chief congressional dealmaker.

Unlike past elections, when he survived challenges from Democrats, Mr. McConnell also faces a serious, well-funded challenge from the right in the GOP primary. The move is forcing the Senate minority leader to defend how he has handled his role vis-a-vis President Obama as well as his support for President George W. Bush’s agenda.

“It doesn’t seem like there is a single piece of wasteful spending that Mitch McConnell has not been a supporter of,” said Matt Bevin, the wealthy Louisville businessman who announced last month that he would take on the five-term senator in the primary.

The McConnell campaign dismisses the charge as absurd while taking a dig at the relative lack of Bluegrass State roots of Mr. Bevin, who was raised in New Hampshire.

“We understand that since Matt Bevin didn’t live in Kentucky during some of the senator’s previous elections, so we’ll give him the Cliff Notes version: He won,” said Jesse Benton, Mr. McConnell’s campaign manager. “Obviously, Mitch has always defended his record or he wouldn’t still be Kentucky’s U.S. senator. Sen. McConnell is the most conservative Republican leader in modern history, and he’s also the most effective advocate for the people of Kentucky.”

Matt Bevin speaks to the media after the 133rd annual Fancy Farm picnic in Kentucky on Saturday. Mr. Bevin is challenging Minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. (Associated Press)

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Matt Bevin speaks to the media after the 133rd annual Fancy Farm ... more >

Formidable Democratic rival

Mr. McConnell appeared to be on an easy track to re-election earlier this year when Kentucky-born actress Ashley Judd, a Democrat, announced that she would not challenge him in the general election. He also appeared to have shielded himself from a tea party challenge when he hired the respected Mr. Benton, who ran the 2008 presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and the successful Senate race in Kentucky of Mr. Paul’s son Rand two years later.

But Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is considered a strong recruit for the Democratic Party, announced last month that she would enter the race, and a couple of polls released in recent days show that she is running neck and neck with Mr. McConnell.

Mr. Bevin added to Mr. McConnell’s headaches by announcing his primary challenge and now is pressing the veteran lawmaker to sign a pledge to support Rand Paul and other conservative lawmakers in their bid to defund Mr. Obama’s health care law in the showdown over the federal budget this fall.

Ms. Grimes and Mr. Bevin took shots at the incumbent over the weekend at the 133rd political picnic at Fancy Farm, where the Democrat cited polls showing Mr. McConnell is unpopular among Democrats and Republicans, and cast him as an obstructionist. “If the doctors told Sen. McConnell that he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it,” she joked.

Mr. Bevin went after the minority leader on hot-button issues such as immigration reform and taxpayer bailouts. He said the people of Kentucky have had “enough of amnesty” and “enough of Wall Street banks being bailed out, while small Kentucky businesses and farms got nothing.”

Backing Bush

The attack is part of Mr. Bevin’s broader message that Mr. McConnell repeatedly has violated conservative principles by supporting increases in the debt limit and congressional earmarks, and backing three of Mr. Bush’s legislative priorities widely disliked by the Republican base: the 2001 No Child Left Behind education bill, the 2003 addition of a prescription-drug subsidy in Medicare and the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said the Bush years could cause Mr. McConnell heartburn but that Mr. Bevin is vulnerable because his own business received bailout funds.

He also predicted that Mr. McConnell’s financial edge will help him fend off Mr. Bevin.

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