Mitch McConnell swings back as he’s hit from left and right

Updated
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2013,
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2013,
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Mitch McConnell already faced a tough general election challenge, but with the Senate minority leader getting his first primary challenger today, the Kentucky Republican finds himself fighting back against attacks from both the left and the right to keep his seat.

With wealthy investment banker Matt Bevin kicking off his campaign today, McConnell swiftly launched a harsh TV ad against his new opponent. Bevin fired back in his own ad, saying the senior senator’s 30 years in Washington were enough.

In the new ad, McConnell’s massive 2014 re-election operation wasted no time in taking the gloves off against Bevin on his first day on the campaign trail in a six-figure buy designed to heavily target GOP audiences.

McConnell’s ad brands his opponent “Bailout Bevin,” criticizing him for getting $200,000 in Connecticut state grants to help his company rebuild after a 2012 fire, failing to pay taxes, and for liens against his company.

Bevin is president of the Connecticut-based bell foundry Bevin Brothers Manufacturing, which recently resumed production after a fire last year, and also a partner at Waycross Partners investment management firm. Bevin has lived in Louisville since 1999, but lived in New Hampshire before that, something McConnell’s campaign has used to claim his ties to the state are thin.

The GOP leader’s allies boast they have plenty of ammo where that came from to use against Bevin, and this first salvo from Team McConnell is likely just the tip of the iceberg in what will be a long, expensive, and nasty campaign, in both the primary and the general election.

Bevin’s campaign responded with its first TV ad, painting McConnell as a relic with a flimsy conservative record, with Bevin asking “after thirty years in Washington, is his leadership really the best we can do?”

An announcer points out that “McConnell has voted for higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises, and liberal judges,” while touting Bevin as a “successful businessman, father of nine, military veteran,” and conservative Republican.

With several statewide announcement stops this week, Bevin’s touting support from the United Kentucky Tea Party, and two prominent national conservative groups both said Wednesday morning they were open to backing McConnell’s challenger, which their deep pockets and donor lists could give Bevin an important boost if they jump in.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, once led by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint to back conservatives and oust incumbents in primaries, said in a statement their super PAC would consider supporting Bevin, after calling McConnell the “least electable Republican senator running for reelection in 2014” earlier this month.

“We’re open to supporting Matt Bevin’s campaign and will be waiting to see if the grassroots in Kentucky unite behind him,” said SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins. “The only way to defeat Mitch McConnell is to inspire the grassroots to rise up and fight for their freedoms. We will also be watching to see if Mitch McConnell debates the issues or if he conducts a dirty smear campaign. If McConnell doesn’t respect the voters enough to defend his own record, he doesn’t deserve to be in the Senate.”

The anti-tax Club for Growth, also said they’d met with Bevin and would be monitoring how the campaign plays out.

“The Club for Growth PAC met with Matt Bevin many months ago, and we’d like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Senator McConnell on the issues,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “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.”

Even with outside help, Bevin still has an uphill task. The GOP leader has built a robust campaign operation, employing 20 political consulting firms. Over the past three months, he raised about $2.2 million and has $9.6 million in the bank. While re-election support has been soft in both public and private polls, the powerful leader still has the upper hand early on in the primary, and in the general election in a state where President Obama got just 38%.

McConnell, so far, is the only vulnerable Senate incumbent who faces challenges from both the left and right. McConnell has been cognizant of his weaknesses with conservatives though, and has been working for months to build bridges with Republicans in the state. He’s been backed by the entire state GOP delegation, has a massive field staff and data organization already. And he’s brought on Jesse Benton, who led Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s successful 2010 and Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid, to lead his campaign. Paul, now the state’s junior senator, has reiterated he’s backing McConnell.

The incumbent’s been endorsed by Tea Party Nation, too, but those national groups’ endorsements drew fire from the local United Kentucky Tea Party groups in a letter this week, writing that “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.”

However, McConnell’s campaign questions just how influential that local support is, and one Louisville Tea Party member stepped down after his group decided to go after McConnell. And others question how influential Tea Party Nation is, a group that is run mostly by one person and is best known for bringing in Sarah Palin to speak at a convention in Nashville during the infancy of the Tea Party.

“Mitch McConnell is the most conservative Republican leader in history and we are proud of his pro-Kentucky, pro-America record,” Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, told msnbc.com. “While we think it is a shame that someone who claims to be a Republican is doing Barack Obama’s bidding by trying to divide Republicans, our primary challenge is merely a nuisance we will easily dispatch so we can get back to the important business of fighting against the big government liberal agenda.”

But while he’s still the favorite in both fights, he’ll have to look over his shoulder both ways, and Democrats are giddy that Bevin could put a chink in the GOP leader’s armor for their top candidate, Kentucky’s Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. The Democratic Super Majority PAC piled on, too, this week, with its latest ad against McConnell, slamming him as a “guardian of gridlock.”

“[McConnell] has tried to pander to the far right, and some of that has made a difference with Republicans, but I think the support is soft,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Matt Canter. “There’s a strong personal distrust among the far right for McConnell, and the right tea party candidate can certainly seize on it.”

Mitch McConnell swings back as he's hit from left and right

Updated