McConnell's long game is the wrong game

Virgil Edwards

Guest Op-Ed

President Trump is popular among Kentucky Republicans with a staggering 63% approval rating -- with many of his supporters being conservatives. Meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell has declared war against conservatives. As early as 2014, McConnell announced his intention to destroy any Kentucky Republican that opposes his brand of Republicanism.

In an article published in the Atlantic on March 10, 2014 titled, "Emperor Mitch McConnell Pledges to Crush the Tea Party Rebellion," Mitch clearly and without mincing words indicated that he will seek to annihilate any opposition to the establishment party rule. "I don't think they [Tea Party conservatives] are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country," said McConnell.

McConnell's disdain for conservatism is understandable, as he has seen just how effective the Tea Party was when they were organized and hungry. McConnell witnessed Tea Party champion Dr. Rand Paul beat the Republican establishment's handpicked candidate Trey Grayson in a landslide. That is why it has become McConnell's mission to take out the Tea Party.

On May 20, 2014, Sam Youngman of the Daily Beast wrote, "Mitch McConnell Sends Tea Party a Message: Don't Get in My Way," which outlined how McConnell had prepared for businessman Matt Bevin's Senate challenge in 2014, and why Bevin's campaign never really took off where it mattered most. "It'll be because the incumbents who were challenged were better prepared and more willing to fight back smartly," said Billy Piper, a former McConnell Chief-of-Staff. Matt Bevin would go on to lose the primary to McConnell and win the Kentucky gubernatorial election in 2015.

Since 2014, we have witnessed a series of events unfold that could make one question, and perhaps even scratch their head, as to why Governor Bevin would play an unwitting part in dividing the Kentucky Republican party for perhaps decades to come. In 2015, Bevin represented himself as a conservative champion who, if elected, would fight against big government. In adding to the excitement around his candidacy, conservatives rejoiced when Bevin chose Kentucky Tea Party fire blazer Jenean Hampton as his running mate. Based on his representation as a true conservative, and along with the help of Hampton, Bevin went on to win a hotly contested Republican primary by defeating McConnell-backed businessman Hal Heiner and former Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, James Comer. Notably, Bevin won the Republican primary by only 83 votes -- which undoubtedly was the result of the votes cast by true conservative Republicans across the state who believed that Bevin shared their values. Bevin then proceeded to defeat Democrat Jack Conway by winning 106 out of 120 Kentucky counties. This was a historic win and a victory for all Republicans, as Kentucky is known to vote blue in gubernatorial races.

Since Bevin was sworn-in to office in December 2015, there are many things that he has done to earn the praise of Kentucky conservatives. Bevin has done well with what he knows best, which is working with the business sector to bring economic opportunity to Kentucky. He has feverishly fought for the unborn and has continued to be a strong supporter of limited government. However, his first term has not gone without errors -- and those errors were, of course, enflamed by the liberal news media.

There is no better example of this than how he handled the teacher's union on public pension reform. Instead of staying on the message that Kentucky's public pension program is insolvent and in danger of going completely bankrupt, Bevin's efforts to save the state retirement system were overshadowed by exaggerated liberal news articles insinuating that Bevin had declared war against Kentucky teachers. This caused his approval rating to plummet and make him vulnerable in his bid for re-election. Bevin's sinking ship created the perfect opportunity for McConnell to ride to the rescue -- but with strings attached.

In exchange for McConnell's endorsement (and, of course, his endless donor contributions), Bevin was required to drop Lt. Governor Hampton as his 2019 running mate in favor of Kentucky State Senator Ralph Alvarado. Many conservatives viewed this as a betrayal, as they believe Hampton was a critical component in maintaining Bevin's conservative base. You see, as a leader of the Kentucky Tea Party, Hampton was a threat to not only the Republican establishment, but McConnell himself.

Shortly after Hampton was booted out for Alvarado, another one of McConnell's strings had to be satisfied. Steve Knipper, Hampton's Chief-of-Staff, would have to be fired. At the time, Knipper was a candidate for Kentucky Secretary of State and running against former McConnell staffer Michael Adams. (Notably, Adams made headlines for failing to pay a Missouri state-mandated fee of $410 to practice law when he represented then-Governor Eric Greitens' campaign over an ethics complaint. Greitens would resign as a result of this lawsuit). You see, because McConnell knew that Knipper would likely be elected (in 2015, he came within 2,000 votes of beating current Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes), he directed Bevin's administration to cause financial hardship on Knipper personally -- and it worked. Knipper was fired and would go on to lose to Adams in the 2019 Republican Primary.

Soon after, Hampton would see another one of her staff members, Adrienne Southworth, terminated by the Governor's Office without explanation. When news broke of Southworth's expulsion, Hampton tweeted to her supporters, warning that "dark forces" (Mitch McConnell) were at work. Hampton's tweet was met by accusations from the Kentucky Republican establishment that she and her supporters were trying to sabotage Bevin's chances of winning re-election. This incident further fueled the fire and widened the divide between establishment and conservative Kentucky Republicans.

If McConnell's manipulation of the Bevin administration doesn't convince you, look no further than Kentucky's 4th Congressional District. McConnell is so desperate to rid the Republican Party of true conservatives that the Republican Party of Kentucky (a.k.a. McConnell) has recruited State Representative Kim Moser, an establishment Republican, to challenge current U.S. Representative Thomas Massie, a shoo-in congressman beloved by conservatives across the state.

So, ask yourself: why would Bevin create this level of division among Republican voters in Kentucky? Why, after such a historic win in 2015, would Bevin boot Hampton from the ticket? Why would McConnell recruit a primary challenger in hopes of defeating one of the most conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives? It simply does not make sense. At least, not until you look at the bigger picture. Not unless you accept that the Republican Party of Kentucky is completely controlled by McConnell. Not unless you understand Mitch McConnell's disdain for anyone who dares to oppose him and hatred for anyone who threatens his power.

What does all of this mean? It means that McConnell, who has always been a "Never Trumper" is playing the long game against President Trump. If Bevin loses his seat, Kentucky conservatives will be silenced, demoralized and accused of costing Bevin's election. If Massie loses his seat in Congress, it will be yet another blow to Kentucky conservatives. And if Michael Adams becomes Secretary of State, Mitch McConnell will control Kentucky's voter roll. Being that conservatives make up the majority of the 63% of Trump's support in Kentucky, that support will be weakened, and Republicans will be encouraged to vote for a moderate candidate. Who would that candidate be? I venture to guess it will be a Never Trumper like Mitt Romney.

Virgil Edwards is a EKU graduate and Richmond resident since 2016.

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