The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kentucky conservatives say McConnell’s debt ceiling vote no game-changer

Mitch McConnell (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
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For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Wednesday afternoon was a bit of a nightmare.

Forced by some within his own ranks to help Democrats hit a 60-vote threshold for passing a yearlong debt ceiling extension, McConnell fell on his sword and cast one of the deciding votes -- a move that some saw as a political liability that could mobilize his conservative critics and hurt him in his May primary against tea party challenger Matt Bevin.

“Kentucky deserves better,” tweeted the Senate Conservatives Fund. “Once again, #McConnell caves to the left,” Bevin declared on his own Twitter account. And, with that, it wasn't long before much of theBbeltway was speculating – with some national conservative groups declaring outrage – just how much damage McConnell had inflicted on his own re-election chances. 

But, apparently, Kentucky conservatives didn't get the memo.

While national groups blasted McConnell, roughly a dozen self-described conservative and tea party operatives in Kentucky said that McConnell’s role in the passing of the latest debt ceiling increase makes them no less likely to vote for his re-election bid.

The logic is simple: Everyone in Kentucky knows McConnell to be a political pragmatist. If his actions on Wednesday bother you enough to vote against him, then you are someone whose vote he had already lost, long ago.

Even some of McConnell’s harshest critics on the right concede that the debt limit vote – while packed with political drama – is unlikely to prompt a massive shift in support by Kentucky's Republican primary voters away from the incumbent.

“If you’re looking for a straw that is going to break the camel’s back, the debt ceiling vote won’t be it,” said David Adams, a Kentucky tea party activist who has made a hobby of working to unseat McConnell and personally helped recruit Bevin to the race. “It’s not going to be the big turning point. It's the latest in a long line of things he's done to betray Kentucky's conservatives, but it's not the big turning point. ”

McConnell is thought to be especially vulnerable this year -- both in the primary as well as in the general election, in which he is expected to be challenged by a well-funded Democrat in Alison Lundergan Grimes -- and recent polling shows that more than half of the state disapproves of the job he has done, including a staggering 33 percent of Kentucky Republicans. 

But conservative Republican operatives -- the kind of voters the tea party must either convert or convince to stay home on election day if Bevin is to mount a serious challenge to McConnell -- say they are unmoved.

"Matt Bevin is a good guy. I just don't think Matt's going to be a winner, and certainly not because of the debt ceiling," said Jim Weise, a longtime GOP operative in Hardin County who knows both Bevin and McConnell.  "Frankly, I think Matt is going to get his clock cleaned."

In interviews on Thursday, GOP operatives in DC and conservative voters in Kentucky said that while McConnell’s help in shepherding the passage of a clean debt ceiling bill won’t ingratiate him with his critics on the right, it’s unlikely to be a game-changer in his Senate primary race against Bevin – in which polls show him sitting on a comfortable lead -- in large part because it fits the already established campaign narrative.

“He cast a risky but the right vote,” said Mark McKinnon, a former media adviser to President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “He'll take some heat for it, but nothing like the heat that would have radiated from another government shutdown, which would have caused him a bigger problem in the general election, which is where his real threat lies.”