The Washington Post

Despite debt limit vote, Kentucky conservatives sticking with McConnell

With the financial markets watching anxiously, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a dramatic last-minute move that looked to many like self-sacrifice.

McConnell cast one of the deciding votes to help overcome a potential GOP filibuster on the way to approving a year-long debt ceiling extension on Wednesday afternoon.

Some saw the move as risky, a political liability that would mobilize his conservative critics and hurt him in the May primary against tea party challenger Matt Bevin.

The outrage on the right was immediate: “Kentucky deserves better,” tweeted the Senate Conservatives Fund. “Once again, #McConnell caves to the left,” declared Bevin, on his Twitter account. It wasn’t long before the political oddsmakers in Washington were speculating about just how much damage McConnell had inflicted on his chances for reelection the dramatic debt ceiling vote.

Back in Kentucky, the answer appears to be none.

“The race has already been defined,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Warren County GOP and a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. “McConnell has his critics, and there is nothing he could do to make them happy. But this vote didn’t make him any new enemies.”

Even some of those critics concede that the debt limit vote — while packed with Washington 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 helped recruit Bevin to run. “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 persuade 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 Washington and conservative voters in Kentucky said that while McConnell’s help 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.

“If Senator McConnell were very worried about conservatives back home jumping ship, then he wouldn’t have voted for the debt ceiling increase,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill operative. “He knew he could weather this one. He could afford to take this bullet.”

Tea party activists in Kentucky say they will try to get as many bullets out of the debt ceiling as they can to help Bevin.

“We’re building a ground network,” declared Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, which has endorsed Bevin. “A lot of folks here have had enough of McConnell.”

But establishment Republicans and self-described conservatives in Kentucky say they have not seen the type of tea party groundswell that propelled Rand Paul to his 2010 Senate victory.

“The fact of the matter is it’s hard to imagine the kind of groundswell that it would take for Kentucky Republicans to throw the Republican leader out of the Senate this year,” said Nathan Haney, chairman of the Jefferson County GOP.

Instead, Haney and other Kentucky Republicans say, the pathway to a more conservative Senate is by helping Republicans win control of the chamber. That quest, they say, is best served by helping McConnell gain re­election.

“We’re looking at the big picture. Until we have a Republican majority in both of the houses, we’re not going to get the country back on the track,” said Donna Pegago, a conservative and founder of the Bardstown/Nelson County Kentucky Tea Party, who says she will vote for the incumbent in May.

“And we’re not going to accomplish that by unseating Senator McConnell.”

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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