LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Conservative activists from across the country came to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's hometown on Saturday to insist that their fight against established Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections isn't over.
The downtown Louisville rally served as a lift for McConnell challenger Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman who wants to capitalize on the same tea party energy that helped Rand Paul defeat McConnell's choice for the state's other Senate seat two years ago.
The event also was intended as a morale booster as the so-called liberty movement tries to put its imprint on an election cycle where McConnell and many of his fellow Republican incumbents appear to be in a strong position to win their party's nomination. Speakers accused the Republican Senate leader and his colleagues of joining President Barack Obama in perpetuating a behemoth central government.
Bevin charged McConnell, who's held his seat since 1985 with "selfishness ... hubris ... and cowardice." And he encouraged his supporters not to be cowed by polls suggesting a McConnell advantage. "If you think we cannot win, then you're right," Bevin said, looking out at signs that urged voters to "Ditch Mitch."
Bevin was followed by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who told the crowd that McConnell's challenger was "called by God."
The Kentucky primary is May 20.
McConnell was in Louisville on Saturday as well, presenting a Purple Heart to Sgt. Jesse Wethington of Liberty, Ky., for injuries he sustained in 2005 while deployed to Iraq. McConnell did not take questions from reporters after the ceremony.
A McConnell campaign spokeswoman issued a statement via email: "Mitch McConnell spends every day working for Kentucky, while this guy clowns around with out of state groups trying to con people into believing he's something he's not."
The conservative insurgency helped Republicans regain control of the House in 2010 and, besides Paul in Kentucky, benefited Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. Several speakers dropped those names Saturday, each time drawing enthusiastic applause. But archconservative nominees have also been blamed for general election losses in several states, including Missouri and Indiana in 2012. McConnell has been aggressive with fundraising and his attacks on Bevin, and he's encouraged his colleagues in other states to do the same.
Chris McDaniel of Mississippi told the assembly that his race — he's trying to unseat six-term Sen. Thad Cochran — is part of a national movement against a "political aristocracy" in both major parties. That dynamic, he said, has slowly pushed Republicans away from conservative principles advocated by party luminaries like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
"We need to regain our party and its conscience," he said.
McDaniel is giving Cochran his toughest race in 30 years and is widely viewed as having the best chance among conservative challengers across more than a half-dozen Republican Senate primaries. But Bevin predicted that the gap in Kentucky will close, insisting that all the energy on the ground belongs to his campaign.
"The man has spent $10 million and come at me with everything," Bevin told the Associated Press. "He's nervous, and he should be."
Several Bevin supporters said they've supported McConnell in the past, but to a person, they said he hasn't been conservative enough in budget fights against Obama and Democrats. "Ditch Mitch, for his own good," said Chris McKinney of Boone County. "He doesn't even know how much he needs it. He just gets up there and gets rolled."
McKinney and several of her Boone County tea party associates noted that Paul was also viewed as an outsider, long-shot candidate — and ended up beating the McConnell machine.
"My husband and I have always voted for Mitch, given him money," said Julia Martin, also of Boone County. "Not this time. I'm done."
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP.