Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election push is exposing some fissures in the tea party movement, with national groups supporting his re-election and local groups calling for him to be replaced with a “true conservative.”
The United Kentucky Tea Party slammed two national branches of the grass-roots movement Monday for endorsing the five-term Kentucky Republican, and the group’s spokesman said the state-based tea partyers will back Louisville businessman Matthew Bevins, who is expected to announce Wednesday that he will vie for Mr. McConnell’s seat, forcing a GOP primary.
“We see him a lot in the same vein as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz,” said Scott Hofstra, spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party. “If he decides to get into the race, we will support him wholeheartedly.”
The potential matchup — and other internal GOP fights brewing in races across the country — could complicate Republicans’ hopes of capturing the Senate in elections next year. To return to power in the Senate, Republicans need to win a net of six seats, and party leaders are desperate to avoid a repeat of the past two election cycles, when they put forward candidates Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012 and Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010. Both lost what many saw as winnable races.
“Despite McConnell’s conservative record, tea party activists have been talking for months about finding a candidate to challenge him in a primary. They appear to have settled on a political newcomer in Bevins,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report. “Odds are that he will be a distraction to McConnell, but it is worth watching to see if the tea party can make him truly competitive.”
Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Republican primaries “can be surprising” but that Mr. Bevins would need a lot of help to topple Mr. McConnell.
The Republican nominee is set to square off against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, in the general election. Ms. Grimes is not expected to face the same kind of internal primary challenge.
In an open letter to TheTeaParty.net and Tea Party Nation, Mr. Hofstra said the national groups’ endorsement of Mr. McConnell showed a “lack of research” and “poor judgment.” He argued that the incumbent repeatedly has sold out the movement’s basic limited-government principles.
He knocked Mr. McConnell’s support of the No Child Left Behind education law in 2001, the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement in 2003 and the Wall Street bailout of 2008. He also criticized Mr. McConnell for supporting the USA Patriot Act, the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial and his central role in negotiating the tax-raising “fiscal cliff” deal with President Obama at the beginning of this year.
“Your endorsement undermines the work of the real grassroots tea party organizations all over Kentucky,” said Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party. “Had you taken the time to reach out to us, you would have learned that the tea parties in Kentucky do NOT support Senator McConnell’s campaign.”
TheTeaParty.net threw its support behind Mr. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, this year after news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had been giving extra scrutiny to tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
“With the new revelations that the IRS has been targeting tea party groups, we need Sen. McConnell more than ever,” said Niger Innis, head of TheTeaParty.net. “He was sounding the alarm about the government’s assault on our First Amendment rights years ago, even when it fell on deaf ears. We all owe Sen. McConnell a debt for his vision and courage.”
Tea Party Nation endorsed Mr. McConnell in May, saying its members could support “someone who isn’t perfect” if it puts Republicans closer to winning the Senate.
The divisions between the national and local tea party groups are nothing new.
Jane Aitken of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition has long held that national groups such as Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots do not deserve the tea party mantle after libertarians, disillusioned with both parties, started the grass-roots movement in 2007.
She said the national groups are nothing more than Republican PACs founded by GOP consultants, and that tea partyers should be wary of donating money to these national groups.
“These are people who all picked up on the name and are making money from it, and are making endorsements of people that the local tea partys do not support,” Mrs. Aitken said.
Mr. Hofstra had a similar take. “My impression is that these national tea party groups, they are lobbying groups based in D.C.,” he said. “They have tea party in their name — sometimes they support tea party values, and sometimes they don’t.”