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.”
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.”
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.
“Bevin will be scrutinized closer than he ever has — there is a reason so many top Democrats were reluctant to run,” Mr. Lasley said. “While McConnell might have preferred to save all his resources for Grimes, he has plenty of money. It will be interesting to see how much Bevin is willing to invest of his own resources and what he is able to raise.”
Mr. McConnell, 71, has nearly $9.6 million in cash on hand nearly 10 months before the Republican primary and 15 months before the general election.
“I don’t think McConnell needs to worry too much,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican Party strategist. “He stood for re-election at the height of President Bush’s unpopularity and amidst a financial meltdown and won by over 100,000 votes. There aren’t many people in Kentucky who aren’t familiar with Sen. McConnell and his record.”
The political landscape, though, has changed since Mr. McConnell’s election in 2008, largely because of the emergence of the tea party movement, which has targeted incumbents who backed Bush-era policies that led to more spending and more government. Those issues helped boost Mr. Paul to victory over a McConnell-backed candidate in Kentucky’s 2010 primary.
Mr. Bevin’s candidacy has split the tea party, pitting pro-Bevin groups in Kentucky against a couple of pro-McConnell national branches of the movement, who say the incumbent went to bat for them when it was reported that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative and tea party groups. They also say the minority leader gives Republicans their best chance of taking over the Senate.
The Club for Growth, which advocates for a free market and regularly helps unseat establishment candidates in Republican primaries, has remained neutral in the race. Some say it is out of respect for Mr. McConnell’s reputation for being a no-holds-barred campaigner with a long political memory.