SCF invests nearly $1 million in McConnell primary challenger

The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) spent nearly half of its independent expenditures last year to boost Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) primary challenger.

Businessman Matt Bevin received nearly half of the $910,000 its members the conservative group contributed to its five endorsed candidates last year, according to an email sent to supporters.

The more than $450,000 in donations SCF contributed to Bevin is more than the sum they raised for then-candidate Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during his entire 2012 primary, according to SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins. And the total amount SCF invested in Bevin, about $986,000, is almost half the $2 million it invested overall in all of its five endorsed candidates last year.

SCF members can choose which candidates receive their donations, and Bevin received more than three times as many donations as the next closest candidate, Louisiana GOP hopeful Rob Maness. A retired Air Force office, Maness is running to the right of GOP establishment candidate Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). Maness received about $132,000 in donations.

Hoskins told The Hill the support for Bevin is an indication that the conservative grassroots are excited about Bevin, peeved at McConnell and “beginning to pool their money financially to level the playing field” for conservative candidates in Senate races nationwide.

The SCF also spent nearly $536,000 in independent expenditures backing Bevin, largely on ads attacking McConnell.

McConnell has been an outspoken critic of the SCF, at one point calling the group “counterproductive” and accusing it of “ruining the [GOP] brand.” Hoskins said the sum raised for Bevin reflected as much a distaste for McConnell himself as it did anger from members over McConnell’s criticism of the group.

Josh Holmes, a top adviser to McConnell, repeated a common refrain among the senator's allies in a tweet slamming SCF for the expenditures.

"Balance of the Senate hangs in balance and SCF spends $1M attacking our own instead of vulnerable Dems," he tweeted.

Establishment groups like the Chamber of Commerce and a super-PAC affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove have pledged to play heavily in primary fights to defend incumbents and prevent conservative challengers from jeopardizing the party’s chance at taking back the Senate in 2014.

Republicans need to pick up six seats to win the majority, and many in the GOP fear a repeat of the 2010 and 2012 cycles, when weak candidates emerged from primary fights and sabotaged the GOP's best shot at taking back the upper chamber in a decade.

The total SCF invested in the candidate is a significant sum, but it's still dwarfed by the $10 million McConnell has already banked for his reelection fight.

Conservatives see a prime opportunity to replace McConnell because of his deep unpopularity in his home state. A recent Democratic automated poll showed a slight plurality of GOP primary voters, 42 percent, would like to nominate someone more conservative than him. He still, however, led Bevin by 27 points in that same poll.

Some conservatives argue that Bevin is Republicans' best hope for winning the general election, where the GOP nominee will face a top-tier Democratic challenger in Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Hoskins wouldn’t put a cap on the amount the group plans to spend for Bevin in the future, pledging to support him unconditionally.

“We will do everything that we can to help Matt Bevin win this race and Kentucky remain red,” he said.

The group also invested more than $500,000 on state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the conservative primary challenger to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and the group’s first endorsement this cycle.

Lundergan Grimes' campaign suggested the news of SCF's investment in Bevin's campaign was  evidence McConnell's campaign is already having a rough year.

“Less than 72 hours into the New Year, Mitch McConnell’s campaign has already managed to stumble out of the gate," said campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton in a statement.

"In yet another sign of Senator Gridlock’s horrible start to 2014, the Senate Conservatives Fund announced spending $1 million to date to unseat McConnell.  Senator Gridlock’s failure to connect with Kentuckians underscores the Commonwealth’s overwhelming desire for a new senator in the New Year.”

--This piece was updated at 5 p.m. to reflect comment from Lundergan Grimes' campaign.