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Mitch McConnell's Senate primary turns ugly

Mitch McConnell and tea party challenger Matt Bevin are in a race to the bottom this week as each struggles to overcome a new series of setbacks.
Mitch McConnell leaves after talking with reporters at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 28, 2014.
Mitch McConnell leaves after talking with reporters at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 28, 2014.

This week was a turning point in the brutal competition between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and tea party challenger Matt Bevin for the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky. After an array of punishing headlines, one candidate has become so compromised that winning the nomination seems like a long shot at this point.

The question, however, is which candidate.

Both the McConnell and Bevin campaigns are confident that the latest round of coverage, which included plenty of ugly moments for both contenders, will disqualify their opponent from the running. For the incumbent, a difficult bipartisan vote has complicated his ongoing campaign to win over his party’s right flank. For the challenger, a new revelation that he seemingly supported the 2008 bank bailout is opening him up to hypocrisy charges. 

Up to this point, McConnell has enjoyed a consistently large lead over Bevin in polls, even as the same surveys show him tied in a general election against Democratic candidate Alison Lundergran Grimes and struggling with low approval ratings. A poll released last week by Wenzel Strategies gave McConnell a 59-17 lead over Bevin and a razor-thin 43-42 lead over Grimes in a general election matchup.

Bevin supporters, for their part, have argued that McConnell's dominance is mostly due to name recognition and that they'll be able to make up ground as the May 20 primary nears and voters begin to pay attention. Now they believe they have their best opening yet to start dragging McConnell's numbers down. 

That's because last week, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz put McConnell in a tough spot by filibustering a bill to raise the debt ceiling. McConnell and House Republican leaders had already decided, after threatening to do otherwise, that they wouldn’t demand a ransom from Democrats for the move. But by blocking the bill, Cruz forced McConnell to personally line up Republican votes to head off a default crisis rather than sit on the sideline and let the Democratic Senate majority do the dirty work. In the end, McConnell himself voted to end Cruz's filibuster even as he voted no on the underlying bill.

The episode fed directly into Bevin's chief criticisms of McConnell -- namely, that he too often defies conservative demands to work out bipartisan deals. Even before the vote, outside groups like the Senate Conservative Fund were attacking McConnell for past votes to raise the debt and for undermining Cruz’s attempts to shut down the government to extract Democratic concessions.

The United Kentucky Tea Party, which is backing Bevin, seized on the story and even called on McConnell to leave the race in response.

“My phone has rung off the hook since that debt ceiling vote,” Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, told msnbc. “A lot of people are very upset about the fact he flipped on what he told the people he'd do.”

All this earned McConnell the title of “Worst Week In Washington” from the Washington Post’s influential political blogger Chris Cillizza. And it’s not like the rest of his headlines were great either.

Fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who McConnell is relying on to win over tea party voters, gave a lukewarm explanation for his endorsement in an interview with Glenn Beck, even qualifying that McConnell asked for his support “when there was nobody else in the race.” The Louisville Courier-Journal also reported that McConnell had attacked Obama for supporting algae-based biofuels even as McConnell personally requested money from Washington to help fund a biofuel business in Kentucky that donated to his campaign.

McConnell might have had the worst week in Washington, but there’s a pretty good case Bevin had the worst week in Kentucky.

Last Tuesday, Politico reported that Bevin, as president of an investment fund, signed his name to a company report in October 2008 praising the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, for rescuing the economy.

The tea party was largely born out of opposition to the massive bank bailout, and Bevin had made McConnell’s vote for the bailout a centerpiece of his campaign. Recognizing the power of the issue, McConnell tried early in the campaign to muddy the waters by labeling his opponent “Bailout Bevin” in ads, citing grants one of his businesses received from the state of Connecticut to help rebuild a burned down factory. With the letter showing Bevin's onetime praise for TARP, McConnell now has a far more compelling piece of evidence to back up the nickname. 

“Last week was the piece of ammunition that McConnell needed to make the plainest argument they can that this guy was a con man, to use their words,” Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide who is running a Super PAC supporting the senator’s re-election, told msnbc. “It was sort of the perfect storm of things: it’s not arcane, it’s easy to explain, it’s black and white.”

Jennings predicted that the letter would be “the separation point” in which conservative voters who might have been open to Bevin’s message abandon his campaign. Rand Paul, who buddied up with McConnell for a state event this week after his cringe-inducing Beck interview, told state reporters that the TARP document “does hurt [Bevin’s] credibility.” Over at the Lexington Herald-Leader, the news prompted columnist Sam Youngman to ask “Is This The End For Matt Bevin?”

Bevin denies that he endorsed the message in the documents, despite his signature and role as head of the company, arguing that he merely signed off on the fund’s records while leaving the commentary to his chief investment officer. Conservative groups backing his election have defended his explanation so far, but it’s a complicated sell at best.

The TARP debacle might help McConnell preserve his lead over Bevin, but at this point it’s hard to argue he’s winning pretty – and the uglier things get in the primary, the more opportunity Grimes has to pull off an upset in the general election. Kentucky Republicans can’t afford to see their primary turn into a race to the bottom.