Primary challenge launched against McConnell, Senate's top Republican

WASHINGTON – Mitch McConnell will face a challenge from the right in his 2014 reelection bid, a development that has a major conservative group considering an endorsement of the top Senate Republican’s opponent and Democrats boasting of a possible red-state pickup.

Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman, launched his campaign to unseat McConnell at Kentucky’s Capitol Wednesday, part of an announcement tour that will take him across the state this week. He also launched a television advertisement decrying McConnell’s record of supporting higher taxes, debt-ceiling increases and “liberal judges” during his five terms in office.

McConnell’s campaign launched a preemptive strike with a television ad calling the challenger “Bailout Bevin” for accepting state grants for Connecticut-based companies after a fire destroyed a bell factory. Bevin’s campaign said McConnell was “slinging mud to avoid discussing his own liberal voting record.”

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The success of tea party-backed candidates against both incumbent Republicans and establishment favorites in previous election cycles has prompted McConnell and others to carefully guard their right flank to ward off such challenges. Just three years ago, McConnell’s favored candidate in the race for Kentucky’s other Senate seat lost in the Republican primary to Rand Paul, now his colleague.

McConnell now has as his campaign manager Jesse Benton, who served in the same capacity for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Democrats say McConnell’s concern over a primary threat has led him to mount what they call unprecedented obstruction of Senate business this year.

Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said in a statement Wednesday that the group met with Bevin this year and would be closely following the race to study “the differences between him and Senator McConnell on the issues.” “The Club’s PAC will watch Kentucky’s Senate race – as it would with any race – over the coming months to determine if our involvement is warranted,” Chocola said. The Republican primary is next May.

Hours earlier, the same group urged McConnell to sign on to an effort led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to oppose any resolution to continue funding the government this year that includes money for implementation of the president’s new healthcare law.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) mocked McConnell’s predicament this week, saying at an event hosted by President Obama’s former campaign operation that he "tried to make love to the tea party and they didn’t like it." In a memo Wednesday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee cited polling that showed McConnell even with his likely Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and said it was “a race that Grimes can win.”

Kentucky is one of just two states with Republican incumbents where Democrats are expected to mount serious challenges in a year when they are otherwise mostly playing defense. This week Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, announced her candidacy for the Georgia seat now held by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

With Democrats heavily favored to win a special election in New Jersey this year, Republicans probably will need to net six seats in the 2014 elections to reclaim the majority for the first time since 2007.

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