The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pouring money into a television advertising campaign defending Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose primary fight against a Tea Party-backed rival is shaping up as a test of establishment efforts to reclaim the Republican Party.
The business lobby will spend about $180,000 on a 10-day statewide blitz beginning Dec. 2 on behalf of McConnell, a five-term Republican, said a person familiar with the plans who asked not be identified because the ad buy hasn’t been announced.
McConnell faces twin challenges next year in his re-election bid. He is competing against Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman backed by the small-government movement, in the May 20 Republican primary contest. The winner of that race will square off with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the November general election.
The Chamber, which spent $36 million to influence last year’s congressional races, is wading into Republican primary fights to back candidates focused on economic issues.
Its first foray into bolstering a pro-business candidate facing a Tea Party candidate came earlier this month in Alabama, where it endorsed former state Senator Bradley Byrne and spent more than $200,000 supporting him in the final days of a Republican primary for a Mobile-area U.S. House seat.
The effort bore fruit; Byrne, an attorney who pitched himself as a pragmatist, defeated property developer Dean Young, who questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace and pledged to shut down the government a second time over the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Byrne is favored to win the Dec. 17 general election over a Democratic opponent.
Neither the Chamber nor McConnell’s campaign responded to requests for comment on the group’s plans in Kentucky. Politico first reported the business group’s entry into the race.
Bevin is working to portray McConnell, a Senate insider who is adept at cutting deals with Democrats, as insufficiently committed to core Republican principles such as cutting government spending.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has endorsed Bevin, saying he has “Ted Cruz-like courage” -- a reference to the first-term Texas senator who led the charge to tie defunding Obamacare to keeping the federal government operating, leading to last month’s 16-day partial shutdown.
The United Kentucky Tea Party, a coalition of local groups affiliated with the anti-tax movement that is also backing Bevin, last month dubbed the primary a “national fight against out-of-control big-government Republicans.”
Rob Engstrom, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce political director, said following the partial government shutdown that the business lobby would use the Alabama primary and other races in the coming year to “send a message” that it was willing to put political money behind pragmatists who advance its economic goals.