After a budget fight that split the Republican Party and resulted in a 16-day government shutdown, a prominent conservative group is taking aim at the very top of the Republican Party--Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a nearly 30-year veteran of the Senate.
The Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed McConnell's primary opponent Matt Bevin Friday, marking the organization's highest-profile crusade against moderate Republicans yet and illuminating the growing rift among differing factions of the GOP.
The group’s formal endorsement of businessman Bevin in the Kentucky primary wasn’t a surprise, but it demonstrates where loyalities will fall this midterm cycle when the most conservative Republicans will take aim at those in the party who voted alongside Democrats in favor of ending the shutdown, such as McConnell.
"Matt Bevin is a true conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country,” Matt Hoskins, SCF executive director, wrote in a statement. “He is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare."
McConnell's camp quickly fired back with a barb of its own.
"Matt Bevin now has the dubious honor of standing with a self-serving D.C. fundraising group that made its name by recruiting and promoting unelectable candidates taht ensured Barack Obama a majority in the Senate," spokeswoman Allison Moore told MSNBC. "They clearly care less about Kentuckians than they do about their reputation for supporting laughably bad candidates."
Hoskins admitted that “winning this primary won't be easy” over the cash-flush McConnell, who had $10 million in the bank compared to Bevin’s paltry $222,000 he brought in over the last three months, supplemented by his own $600,000. But with the influential conservative group behind him, they could help make up some of the difference.
“Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power,” said Hoskins. “But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we're confident Matt Bevin can win this race."
He marks SCF’s second endorsement against an incumbent GOP senator so far this cycle. It is also backing a primary challenger against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. The influential group, started by now Heritage Foundation president and former Sen. Jim DeMint, has faced criticism from many within the GOP by going after Republican incumbents rather than helping the party win back a majority in Washington.
But SCF and other groups have been unabashed in their ire for McConnell and other senators they deem insufficiently conservative, especially if they didn’t back a strategy to defund Obamacare at any cost. McConnell's work to broker a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling was the final straw for groups like SCF.
“Mitch McConnell has left his party powerless. He pressured his Republican colleagues to capitulate and forced them to adopt the untenable position that all government programs must be funded if they are part of current law,” Hoskins told NBC earlier this week. “Republicans no longer have a say because McConnell won’t let them take a stand when it matters. He's made them Republicans in name only.”
McConnell, for his part, has seemed unphased by Bevin and other conservative groups who criticized his willingness to compromise.
The GOP leader told The Hill he hoped his party had learned the lesson the 16-day shutdown had wrought on Republicans, where polls show they continue to shoulder the brunt of the blame.
“One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. The first kick of a mule was when we shut the government down in the mid-1990s and the second kick was over the last 16 days,” said McConnell. “There is no education in the second kick of a mule. There will not be a government shutdown.”
Another influential conservative group, Club for Growth, will oppose Sen. Cochran but is holding back--for now--on McConnell.
“While we don’t always agree with Mitch McConnell, we appreciate his 84% lifetime score on the Club for Growth’s congressional scorecard, and his steadfast support for First Amendment free speech rights. We are continuing to monitor the race,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the group.
The Senate veteran remains the favorite to win against newcomer Bevin, but he faces another strong challenger in Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the Bluegrass State’s general election, where she’s polling neck-and-neck with McConnell.
NBC's Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.