TAYLORSVILLE, Ky. — Back in Washington, Kentucky’s five-term senator, Mitch McConnell, was being hailed for pulling the country from the brink. The minority leader boasted to reporters about his ability to “step into the breach,” cutting a deal with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that reopened the government and headed off a fiscal crisis.
But here in the scenic countryside southeast of Louisville, conservative voters gathered in a meeting hall at the local farm bureau to slam his deal-making as a betrayal — and to consider the bid of McConnell’s GOP primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who pledged to be their voice in Washington.
“I don’t feel he represents us or that he’s, frankly, even in touch with where we are,” Bevin, a self-made entrepreneur and affable father of nine, told the audience. “I think these last several days have helped to indicate some of that. There’s a certain amount of disdain.”
He added, “There are a lot of naked emperors that are parading around in Washington. These emperors need to be exposed.”
More than two hours later, the room was still packed and people had their checkbooks out on their laps, ready to back him.
“I went in completely unconvinced,” said Taylorsville resident Chris Sullivan, a retired naval officer. “And now I’m going to go work for his campaign.”
A tour through picturesque Spencer County, where sod farms and cattle fields bump up against suburban homes, reveals how the Beltway negotiating skills that McConnell touts count against him among conservatives who want to upend the system, not work within it. By forging a compromise, many said this week, the Kentucky senator let down their hopes of using the government shutdown and threat of default as a way to hobble President Obama’s signature health insurance law.
“I’d have liked to see him take a harder line against Harry Reid,” said David Ladwig, a 38-year-old payroll compliance officer, as he lined up at the lunch counter of the wood-paneled Elk Creek Restaurant, where the scent of fried chicken filled the air. “If he is opposed by a strong conservative, I would vote against him.”
That is the opening that Bevin, a wealthy investment manager, hopes to push through. It will be an uphill climb: The political novice has a fraction of McConnell’s financial resources and is little-known by most voters in a race that is likely to be the costliest 2014 contest.
Bevin raised $220,000 in the last quarter and threw in $600,000 of his own money. McConnell pulled in $2.3 million during the same period, giving him nearly $10 million in the bank heading into the fall.
There is no independent polling available yet showing how the two Republicans match up. But McConnell’s allies scoff at Bevin’s candidacy, saying his assertion that the longtime senator is not a true conservative will not fly with Kentuckians.
“I don’t personally believe Matt Bevin has gained any traction in this campaign,” said Scott Jennings, a veteran GOP strategist advising a pro-McConnell super PAC called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. “His message is essentially that Mitch McConnell is friends with Barack Obama. If you listen at all to Mitch McConnell, you know that he has been the biggest thorn in Barack Obama’s side.”
The super PAC, which raised almost $1.2 million by the end of June, has poured its resources into ads against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the well-funded Democrat that the winning Republican candidate will face in the 2014 general election.
“We’ve not run any ads against Bevin because Bevin is a speed bump,” Jennings said.
Still, McConnell’s campaign is taking him seriously enough to run cable TV and radio ads attacking him as “Bailout Bevin” for accepting a state grant to help rebuild his Connecticut bell factory, which was destroyed in a fire last year. A McConnell spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
The conservative challenger is attracting the attention of influential players in the tea party movement such as Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that endorsed him Friday, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who suggested in a Facebook post this week that she will engage in the race.
McConnell’s decision to craft a deal with Reid this week inflamed tea party activists around the country and provided his 46-year-old challenger with new fodder for his anti-establishment, small government message.
“It certainly hardens the opposition to him,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “He’s been running around saying we’ve got to get rid of Obamacare, root and branch. So the question is, how come you weren’t willing to go to the wall?”
Tea party sentiment is not unanimous, however. Fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) said this week that McConnell got the best deal he could on the shutdown. And the Club for Growth, which is funding several tea party candidates against GOP incumbents, offered measured praise for McConnell on Friday and said it was still assessing the race.
Cross said McConnell could win points with moderate Republicans who like a Kentuckian in a leadership role and wanted to see him step in to help.
That’s the feeling of Debbie Perdue, a 58-year-old retired nurse and alpaca farmer.
“He does have a lot of political power, and whoever comes in behind him will not have that power and history,” said Perdue as she finished lunch with a friend at the Tea Cup, a restaurant on Taylorsville’s Main Street. “But I can tell you that my husband feels like he sold us out.” He plans to back Bevin, while she’s sticking with McConnell.
The senator’s handling of the crisis drew mixed reviews in Spencer County, which has seen a surge of new residents that have turned the longtime farming community into a bedroom community of Louisville, bringing a more conservative cast to the traditionally Democratic area.
Over a lunch of chili and sandwiches at the Elk Creek Restaurant, Randy Mattocks and David Travis chortled about McConnell’s last-minute maneuver and said they are inclined to back Grimes.
“It’s funny how he came on the scene, just like that,” said Mattocks, 61, a retired state worker, snapping his fingers. “I think he’s doing his best to get reelected.”
“He’s trying to get some brownie points,” agreed Travis, 70, a cattle farmer. “Right on the tail end of the shutdown.”
Down the road, sitting in his office in the City Hall annex, under framed photos of McConnell and other elected officials, Taylorsville Mayor Don Pay said of the minority leader: “Probably he did the only thing that he could do.”
“The support simply wasn’t there in the Senate,” Pay said. “But I think a lot of people feel that the line on the Republican side was not held hard enough.”
Pay, a self-described “tea party conservative,” said he’s always voted for McConnell and plans to do so again. “But I haven’t met Matt Bevin,” he said.
Bevin was a new face to many of those gathered Thursday night at the farm bureau for his appearance, which was hosted by the Spencer County Tea Party.
“He’s got to be better than what we’ve got up there,” said Michael Burress, the 59-year-old owner of a trucking business who decided to attend after McConnell struck the deal this week. “I’m disgusted, just with him giving in.”
Bevin told the crowd that the government shutdown was horrible but blamed it on the Democrats for refusing to pass budget bills sent from the House. Unlike McConnell, he said, he would have forced a debate in the Senate.
“What I would have done differently is held this caucus together,” he said.
Bevin, a former Army officer, showed a knack for retail politics, remembering the names of children he met earlier in the night. He told the friendly crowd about his hardscrabble upbringing in New Hampshire and his success as an investor and joked about how “uncool” he and his wife are as they pilot a 12-passenger van for their family, which includes four children adopted from Ethiopia. He weaved in references to Thomas Jefferson, the Kardashians and Groucho Marx, and called McConnell a “charlatan,” an “empty suit” and a “political bully.”
Bevin noted that McConnell was taking him seriously enough to send trackers to videotape his appearances, including the one Thursday night in Taylorsville.
“Tyler, I hope you get paid by the mile, because if you do, you’re making a fine fortune,” Bevin said, waving good-naturedly to a young man standing behind a tripod in the back of the room.
“McConnell hears the footsteps, and for good reason,” Bevin continued. “As Gandhi said, ‘First, they ignore you. Then, they ridicule you. Then, they attack you. And then you win.’ ”
The crowd burst into hearty applause.
“Who do I make the check out to?” asked Sue Schaefer, a 57-year-old graphic designer sitting in the second row.
“He is saying exactly what I’ve been thinking,” she said after the meeting. Until now, Schaefer said she thought McConnell was a shoo-in. “But now I think he could be beat.”
Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.