FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, the tea party activist who had signaled that he intends to run against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, removed all doubt Tuesday with a press advisory listing stops on a statewide tour to announce his candidacy.
Bevin's challenge reflects a splintering of the tea party in Kentucky where several leading activists, including Sen. Rand Paul, have already pledged their support to McConnell in an effort to keep others in the GOP's most conservative wing from peeling off.
Some tea party critics fault McConnell for voting for financial bailouts, debt ceiling increases and deficit spending during his nearly three decades in office. However, many conservatives are willing to overlook those points, seeing him as a valuable asset against the Obama administration. It's a rift that has played out elsewhere in the U.S.: Tea party supporters demanding strict conservatism pitted against more moderate, establishment politicians with a track record of getting things done.
"Mitch McConnell is a proven conservative who stands strong for Kentucky in the face of President Obama's big government agenda in Washington," Paul said in a statement to The Associated Press. "He is a consistent voice against Obamacare and against this administration's war on coal. He has stood up for Kentucky values."
McConnell helped Paul win the general election in 2010 by providing assistance with fundraising and campaign strategy. Now Paul is trying to help McConnell by touting him as a friend to the tea party and its conservative principles. Pragmatists within the movement don't want to jeopardize a friendly GOP seat in the face of a strong Democratic challenger. More zealous tea party activists are bent on taking on McConnell, and are talking smack ahead of Bevin's official announcement on Wednesday.
Republican state Rep. Mike Harmon, who ran as a tea party candidate for lieutenant governor in 2011, said Kentucky needs McConnell's clout in Washington. He said most tea party Republicans, himself included, don't want to run the risk of damaging McConnell in the primary and weakening him in the general election against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's 34-year-old secretary of state.
Knocking off McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending, while Democrats try to hold onto 21.
One of Kentucky's most outspoken tea party activists, David Adams of Nicholasville, said McConnell has grown out of touch and said if he doesn't take Bevin seriously, "we should all drop moving boxes off at his state offices because he will lose." Adams then called on McConnell to retire and get behind Bevin "while he can still leave the Senate with dignity."
Louisville Metro Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, another tea party activist, said voters "need to consider the big picture" in the Senate race.
"Sen. McConnell has the influence and institutional knowledge to mitigate the over-reaching power of Obama's IRS, Obama's EPA, and Obama's health care act that is putting private health insurance, hospitals, doctors, nurses, patients, small business owners, and jobs at risk," she said. "Time is of the essence and a freshman senator will not have the clout to lead Kentucky and the country to sustainable, healthy, and reasonable policy."
Louisville attorney Mike Karem, a Republican activist who worked for the Nixon and Reagan administrations, said it's too early to know how the Bevin challenge will affect the Kentucky tea party that solidly united behind Paul in 2010. Karem said the challenge could damage the tea party.
"There's no question that will put a crack in the egg," he said. "The question is will the egg bust. This could be Humpty Dumpty, and all the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to put it back together again."
Besides his alliance with Paul, McConnell has picked up support from other national tea party leaders and brought in a campaign manager, Texan Jesse Benton, from the upper echelons of the tea party movement. The moves have virtually ensured that no would-be challenger can get the kind of infusion of cash from tea party channels that allowed Paul to win here in 2010.
Benton said McConnell's tea party coalition remains strong, though he said "we don't want anyone who truly believes in freedom and limited government to 'splinter.'"