While establishment Republicans may still rule the day, the Tea Party is bent on taking down the king, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The five-term incumbent is waging two wars to hang on to his seat. The first battle, culminating on May 20, has McConnell in a primary contest with Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. Hoping he doesn’t survive to fight in the general election, Tea Party groups across Kentucky are rallying the troops ahead of the May 20 primary.
“When was the last time you saw a town hall here in Kentucky with Senator McConnell where he actually answered questions? He shows up at Lincoln Day dinners, gives his speech, and leaves," asserts Scott Hofstra with the United Kentucky Tea Party. "He’s not accountable to us and doesn’t want to be. We deserve better.”
Hofstra spoke recently in Elizabethtown to a group called the Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots, a mix of mostly blue collar workers and retirees.
National Tea Party groups are mostly split in their support of McConnell and Bevin, but state and local groups are mostly rallying around Bevin, someone they call a “true conservative,” who they think can take the GOP back to its roots.
Many Tea Party Members Don't Believe McConnell is a Conservative
"I wonder sometimes if the senior leadership even knows what those core values are anymore," says Bobby Alexander, former chairman of the Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots. "If you look at Republican leadership in Washington, so often they vote with Democrats on non-conservative issues. Big spending, more taxes, bigger government--those are not conservative values. Those are not what the Republican Party is supposed to stand for."
"Then they come back and tell us how conservative they are and that’s just not working anymore because people are becoming more informed about what’s really happening in Washington.”
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton says claims that the Senate Minority Leader isn't a true conservative are not backed up by the facts.
“Senator McConnell has always been a very principled conservative and he enjoys a lifetime rating of 92 from the American Conservative Union, and I think he has a proud conservative record to run on," Benton told WKU Public Radio.
Benton is a Tea Party political operative who managed Rand Paul’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2010. He’s now directing Senator McConnell’s re-election effort.
Although most members of the United Kentucky Tea Party present at a recent rally in Hardin County say they voted for Mitch McConnell six years ago, some--like Scott Hofstra--say they feel duped by the veteran Senator.
"He promised us he was going to get concessions for the last debt ceiling bill and he didn’t. He gave them not only a clean debt ceiling bill, but an unlimited checkbook," Hofstra says. "He tells us one thing and does something completely different once he’s in Washington, and that’s very frustrating.”
Jesse Benton disputes those claims.
“First of all, Senator McConnell voted against raising the debt limit. Let that be very clear," Benton says. "What he did not do was filibuster the vote. What he was not willing to do was shut down the government over raising the debt limit.”
Finding Fault with McConnell Votes on Domestic and International Issues
The Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots are also upset with McConnell for supporting the 2008 federal bank bailout, and their problems with the minority leader aren’t all domestic. The Tea Party criticizes McConnell for voting last year against a budget resolution sponsored by Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul that would have stopped military aid to Egypt.
Central Kentucky Tea Partier Gil Chumley is a white-haired senior from Bardstown who spoke with a look of disgust during an interview at the group's recent Elizabethtown rally.
“Wanting to arm the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That was the last straw for me," states Chumley. "He blocked legislation to stop the transfer of tanks and fighter jets. Those people are our enemies.”
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton told WKU Public Radio that the Louisville Senator is a "very loyal ally of Israel" and that the Israeli government was strongly opposed to cutting aid to Egypt.
What if Many Kentucky Tea Party Members Stay Home in November?
To win the November general election, Sen. McConnell might have to work to win the votes of conservatives like Deania Embry, a Tea Party member from New Haven who says she didn’t vote for McConnell the last time he was up for re-election.
“I have four grandsons and I felt guilty, seeing their future on the line. The $17 trillion debt, they don’t deserve it, Embry says. "It’s my responsibility as a voter, and I have voted for Mitch McConnell for years, but I didn’t vote for him last time. I felt guilty because I put this burden on my grandkids. So I’m doing everything I can to get him out."
Wearing a Matt Bevin t-shirt, Embry says she's been making lots of phone calls lately, trying to educate voters about the Louisville businessman and Tea Party challenger.
If Bevin loses the GOP primary, Embry says she will not vote for McConnell in the fall. That sort of statement raises questions about what might happen if high numbers of Kentucky Tea Party members stay home during the November election, or show up and don't cast a vote for the U.S. Senate race.
Could that possibly help presumptive Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes win the fall election, knocking off the man considered to be the most powerful and influential politician from Kentucky in recent memory?
While Hardin County Tea Partier Scott Hofstra won’t vote for McConnell in the May 20 primary, he says he'll take a pragmatic approach come the general election.
“If Matt doesn’t win this primary, then I will hold my nose and vote for Mitch McConnell," Hoftra admits. "We’re not telling our folks what to do, we leave that to them individually, but there isn’t much passion for Mitch and that’s part of the problem. Yes, they will support him at the polls but I don’t see a lot of people going to work to help him out.”
Making Things Right with Those On the Right
If he wins the primary, Campaign Manager Jesse Benton concedes McConnell has fences to mend with his conservative foes before November.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We take absolutely nothing for granted, and we’re going to work hard to earn every single vote," Benton says.
"We had a contested primary in 2010 with Sen. Paul, which I managed, and about 44 percent of Trey Grayson supporters at one point said they would never vote for Rand Paul, and they all came home."
"But it took work and diligence.”
McConnell has said that his re-election increases the chances that Republicans will take over the Senate, making him the man in charge. McConnell could achieve his dream of being majority leader if he wins re-election and if Republicans net six more seats in the fall.
But Scott Hofstra doesn’t buy that argument.
“Even if he does get re-elected and becomes majority leader, considering his bad voting record and some of the things he’s done ‘Do we want a bad leader or someone who’s not looking out for our best interests?,'" asks Hofstra. "I would rather have even a freshman as majority leader if that means we have someone with energy and passion who can take the party in the right direction.”
Polls Anticipate McConnell-Grimes Matchup in the Fall
All signs point to Senator McConnell coasting to a win on May 20.
A recent poll looking at Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary showed Matt Bevin trailing McConnell by 32 points. But the Tea Party remains hopeful, noting that same poll gave McConnell just a 41% approval rating.
Regardless of what their scorecard looks like after the McConnell-Bevin primary, Scott Hofstra says the Tea Party isn’t going away.
“They’ve been telling us that for the last five years and we just keep getting stronger," he claims. "Here in Kentucky, we continue to grow and mature. We’ve gone from the days of primarily rallies and meetings to folks doing a lot of hard work making phone calls and knocking on doors.”
Despite a recent Gallup survey showing a national decline in support, the Tea Party maintains it will continue to be a force in Republican politics. A good test case will come in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate primary where the Tea Party will find out if they were able to topple a giant.