By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Just as incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to be turning his attention to his likely Democratic opponent, a conservative Republican group formed by former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint endorsed McConnell’s Republican primary opponent Matt Bevin.
The Senate Conservatives Fund announced Friday it is endorsing Bevin, claiming its members preferred Bevin in a SCF survey.
The group was established by DeMint, who is now head of the conservative Heritage Foundation. DeMint has angered establishment Republicans by encouraging primary challenges, some of which resulted in unexpected Democratic Senate wins in 2012 and cost the GOP a chance at gaining a Senate majority.
Bevin is challenging five-term McConnell in next May’s primary, claiming the Senate Minority Leader doesn’t stand up for “Kentucky’s conservative values.” He has repeatedly criticized McConnell for failing to fight hard enough to de-fund the Affordable Care Act and more recently for McConnell’s role in a deal to re-open the government and avert a national default.
McConnell scoffs at the criticism, saying no one has fought harder against the health care law which critics call “Obamacare” or Obama’s policies. During Obama’s first term, McConnell famously said his number one priority was to prevent Obama’s re-election.
Lately McConnell – who has never faced a serious primary challenge – seems to be ignoring Bevin and focusing attention on presumptive Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
McConnell’s pivot on negotiating a deal with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and toward Grimes rather than Bevin in his political race came after the three candidates announced fundraising totals for the third quarter and after the release of polls showing most voters blame Republicans for the government shutdown.
McConnell reported raising $2.27 million in the third quarter and has $10 million cash on hand while Bevin reported raising $822,000 which included $600,000 of his own money. Meanwhile, Grimes who declared her candidacy in July reported raising $2.5 million in her first quarter.
Still, it’s noteworthy that a conservative group would take on the Senate’s top Republican.
Bevin said he is “humbled to have the endorsement of the most effective conservative organization in the country.”
“Matt Bevin is a true conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country,” said SCF Director Matt Hoskins in the announcement. “He is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare.”
Allison Moore, McConnell’s campaign spokeswoman, questioned Bevin’s characterization of the SCF as an effective conservative organization, blaming the SCF for the Republican Party’s inability to win back the Senate.
“Matt Bevin has the dubious honor of standing with a self-serving D.C. fundraising group that made its name by recruiting and promoting unelectable candidates that ensured Barack Obama a majority in the Senate,” Moore said. “They clearly care less about Kentuckians than they do about their reputation for supporting laughably bad candidates.”
Moore also questioned why the press is focused on the SCF endorsement when they paid little attention to the state Fraternal Order of Police endorsement of McConnell earlier in the week.
But DeMint’s group has a history of affecting Republican Senate fortunes. The SCF backed Republican primary challengers in Missouri, Indiana and Delaware in the last two election cycles who defeated incumbents or establishment candidates but then lost to Democrats in the fall elections, ensuring continued Democratic control of the Senate.
The SCF has also spent more than $300,000 on television ads in Kentucky criticizing McConnell.
DeMint was publicly blamed this week by Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch for encouraging congressional Republicans to engage in their failed battle over continued funding of the government and the health care law. That three-week fight produced multiple polls showing voters blame Republicans more than Democrats for the impasse and some in the GOP fear it hinders their electoral prospects in 2014.
DeMint also backed Rand Paul in his successful Senate race in 2010 which might place Paul in an awkward position. Paul has publicly endorsed McConnell while declining to criticize Bevin who hopes to benefit from at least some in Paul’s tea party base.
A spokesman for Paul, Daniel Bayens, declined to comment on the SCF endorsement.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.