McConnell Primary Challenge Curbs Deal-Making Instincts

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, bracing for a primary challenge backed by anti-tax Tea Party activists, is shrinking from his longtime role as a broker of high-stakes congressional deals to tend to his own political survival.

Matt Bevin, an investment adviser and political novice, is set to announce his candidacy tomorrow in the state capital of Frankfort, aide Sarah Durand said in a press advisory yesterday that outlined plans for an eight-stop campaign roll-out across Kentucky this week.

“He is running for the U.S. Senate because he believes that the chance for future generations to achieve their own American dream is in danger of being destroyed by elite politicians out of touch with the hard-working, independent-minded taxpayers that make our country great,” according to a campaign biography.

McConnell, 71, the Senate’s top Republican, has long been positioning himself for a prospective primary opponent, reaching out to Tea Party groups and forging a bond with Kentucky’s other Republican Senator Rand Paul, a hero to the movement. In recent months, he began taking a less prominent role in bipartisan maneuvering in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.

“We’re going to see McConnell in the same mode that he’s been for the past year -- only more-so now that he has a primary challenger -- which is being very, very careful of being perceived as someone who’s accommodating the other side or making compromises, because the best thing to do in a Republican primary is to vote ‘no,’” said former Republican congressional aide Ron Bonjean, now a public affairs consultant at Washington-based Singer Bonjean Strategies.

Filibuster Showdown

That was the case in a bipartisan deal last week to avert a Senate meltdown over Republicans’ use of filibusters to block President Barack Obama’s nominees. McConnell stayed mostly in the background as a group led by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, negotiated a pact whereby Democrats dropped a threat to change Senate rules and the minority allowed up-or-down votes on seven nominees.

It’s also likely to be the case on other issues that require bipartisan cooperation, including revising U.S. immigration laws and raising the debt ceiling. McConnell voted against the immigration measure when the Senate passed it last month.

“McConnell will do a lot of orchestrating behind the scenes, but you’re never going to see him on the record making statements about a willingness to compromise,” Bonjean said.

Political Plotting

Tea Party leaders in the state have been plotting a 2014 primary challenge to McConnell for months, after many of them criticized the Senate minority leader for his role in cutting past deals with Obama and congressional Democrats. Those included a New Year’s Eve budget agreement he helped craft with Vice President Joe Biden that averted most tax increases set to take effect and postponed spending cuts.

Yet the limited-government movement has splintered over taking on the fifth-termer, with some national groups endorsing him.

“Fighting McConnell is not a fight to have,” Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation wrote in a May 19 posting on the group’s website that argued it was time for the movement to “grow up” and “pick our fights.” Invoking the name of the Senate’s Democratic Majority Leader, Phillips added: “For those who scream that McConnell isn’t ‘Tea Party’ enough, would you prefer Harry Reid?”

In Kentucky, though, Tea Party activists are criticizing McConnell for voting repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling, and for backing the 2008 financial bailout, free-trade agreements, a 1986 immigration measure that gave amnesty to millions of undocumented residents, and the Patriot Act that gave the government expanded power to combat terrorism.

No Friend

“Senator McConnell’s progressive, liberal voting record, his absolute iron-fisted rule over the Republican Party in Kentucky, and his willingness to roll over and cede power to President Obama and the liberals in Washington prove that he is no friend to the American people or the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, a coalition of local groups, wrote in an open letter distributed yesterday.

The missive was addressed to the and Tea Party Nation, and it criticized those organizations for their “surprise” endorsements of McConnell, whose Senate seat also is being sought by Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state.

Business Award

Bevin was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, when he was chief executive officer of Integrity Asset Management LLC, a firm he founded in 2003, according to a piece published in Smart Business Cincinnati.

His campaign biography says the father of nine children -- four of them adopted from Ethiopia -- grew up in New Hampshire, attended Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and served as an officer in the Army before joining the financial industry.

He’s now a partner at Waycross Partners LLC, a Louisville company that describes itself as a firm that helps institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals manage their assets. Waycross says it focuses on “creative destruction,” the concept of innovation leading to the inevitable elimination of the older and less efficient in the business world.

Bell Production

Bevin is also the president of Bevin Bros. Manufacturing Company based in East Hampton, Connecticut, which he describes in a posting on its website as a “6th generation family business” started in 1832 by his great-great-great grandfather and three of the man’s brothers. The company produces a variety of bells, including the iconic cowbell used by Salvation Army workers clad as Santa Claus at Christmas.

A fire destroyed the Bevin factory last year, and the company and an affiliate each received $100,000 in small-business matching grants from the state of Connecticut to help them rebuild. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said at the time he would seek federal money to help the company clean up and rebuild.

Bevin’s biography casts him as “a job creator who believes American taxpayers deserve more than the failed policies of recent decades -- more than the repeated bailouts, tax increases, amnesty, automatic debt-limit increases, congressional pay raises, and back-door special interest deals.”

Bevin began contributing to the Republican Party and its candidates in 2010, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. He gave $2,400 to Paul after he defeated McConnell’s hand-picked Republican candidate, Trey Grayson, in a primary for Kentucky’s other Senate seat, which Paul went on to win.

Bevin also gave the state party $2,400 that year, and another $10,000 last year, when he also donated $2,500 to the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

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