With three months to go before the Kentucky GOP primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin and his allies have launched a series of attack ads against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, casting the five-term incumbent as an unreliable conservative and as an Obama lackey.
But some Republican strategists say the ads smack of desperation from a candidate who has failed to gain traction, and say Mr. McConnell appears to be in good shape heading into the May 20 primary.
“There are not 50 people who could pick Matt Bevin out of a lineup in Kentucky,” said Ted Jackson, a GOP strategist in Kentucky. “Could that change? Absolutely. But I don’t see it changing.”
The race is one of several this year that feature veteran lawmakers who have drawn challenges from their right flank.
Mr. Bevin has the support of the Madison Project and the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which are among the groups also working to oust Republican Sens. Pat Roberts in Kansas and Thad Cochran of Mississippi in their primaries.
The leaders of these groups say that Mr. McConnell, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Cochran, among others, have surrendered too much ground in the ongoing fight over the size of the federal government.
Mr. McConnell appeared to give Mr. Bevin an opening earlier this month when he cast the key vote that allowed a 15-month debt increase.
“Mitch McConnell betrayed conservatives to give Obama a blank check,” the Bevin campaign said in a new television ad.
The SCF also painted him as a sellout in a radio ad released Tuesday.
“Mitch McConnell has betrayed Kentucky’s conservative values,” the narrator said in the spot. “That’s why it’s time to blow the whistle on Mitch McConnell, and replace him with conservative Matt Bevin.”
Scott Jennings, a strategist who worked on Mr. McConnell’s 2002 and 2008 campaigns and now advises his Super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said that these outside groups have not have a big impact on the race and it is telling that the SCF is spending less than $30,000 on the ad.
“They try to trick people into believing people into thinking there is some sort of widespread ad campaign,” Mr. Jennings said. “I don’t see any evidence that anything they doing on the ground is making a difference.”
For its part, the McConnell campaign has highlighted Mr. Bevin’s struggle to explain his apparent past support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Mr. Bevin signed a memo praising the bailout as president of an investment fund, even though he says as senator he would have opposed it.
Mr. McConnell, whose favorability ratings are low, insulated himself from some of his conservative critics by garnering the early endorsement of fellow Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite and likely 2016 presidential contender.
And Mr. McConnell has a major fundraising advantage. In their latest campaign finance reports, Mr. McConnell reported having more than $10.8 million in the bank, while Mr. Bevin reported having more than $523,000.
Polls show that Mr. McConnell is leading Mr. Bevin by somewhere between 26 percent and 46 percent points. One of the polls found that close to half of those surveyed had “no opinion” of Mr. Bevin, suggesting he has yet to connect with most potential voters.
But Mr. Bevin’s supporters counter that polls show he has cut Mr. McConnell’s lead, and they argue that Mr. McConnell cannot win a general election matchup with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who held a fundraiser and rally with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday.
At a Louisville hotel Tuesday, Mr. Clinton made his 2014 campaign debut and told the audience of more than a thousand people that Mr. McConnell opposes raising the minimum wage while Ms. Grimes is “somebody who puts people first, who cares about rebuilding the middle class.”
Mr. McConnell noted in Washington that Mr. Clinton had campaigned for his two previous Democratic general-election opponents, so “every time he’s come it’s been really good for me.”