McConnell crushes Tea Party challenge

 

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) easily defeated his primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, in a sour loss for the Tea Party on Tuesday night.

The Associated Press called the race for McConnell right as polls closed at 7 p.m. in the Bluegrass State, where the Senate minority leader had a two-to-one lead over Bevin. 

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McConnell's victory sets up a closely-watched and expensive contest against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, one of Democrats' best hopes at a GOP pickup this cycle. Grimes also easily won her nominal primary on Tuesday. 

Tea Party groups, long frustrated with McConnell’s leadership, initially had high hopes for Bevin. He drew the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund and Madison Project, among others, and SCF invested nearly a million dollars on his bid.

Bevin was initially seen as a potentially formidable foe for McConnell, who is broadly disliked by Kentuckians of both parties. He invested much of his own money in the race, and his large and diverse family, conservatives believed, offered a strong contrast to the stern and staid McConnell.

But Bevin fell short, crippled by repeated missteps and contradictions in his past that fueled a narrative of the candidate as “deceptive” pushed by McConnell and his allies.

They pointed to an exaggeration of his educational credentials on his LinkedIn page and apparent previous support for the financial bailout as evidence.

And Bevin wasn’t helped by a series of high-profile unforced errors, at one point suggesting that legalizing gay marriage could lead to parents being able to marry their children and speaking at a pro-cockfighting rally that he said he was unaware was related to cockfighting, and then later backtracked on that statement.

McConnell was also aided by a nonprofit and super-PAC created largely to boost his campaign. The Chamber of Commerce spent over $1 million to support him, and McConnell himself spent more than $9 million from his own campaign coffers.

Though the senator suffered his own unforced errors — including a tape of campaign manager Jesse Benton admitting during a private conversation he’s “holding his nose” working with McConnell going public — he also made a number of shrewd campaign moves to shore up some of the Tea Party vote he’s alienated throughout his career.

Hiring Benton, who formerly worked as Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) campaign manager, was one of them; earning Paul’s endorsement was another.

McConnell goes on to face Grimes in the general election in a fight that’s expected to be far fiercer. Where Bevin lagged McConnell by double digits in every poll of the race, most polling of the general election matchup has shown the race to be within the margin of error.

He previewed how nasty the race may become in his victory speech on Tuesday night, during which he turned his fire on Grimes, calling her “a partisan’s partisan who’s been practicing party politics since she learned to talk" — a reference to her father, who's a prominent Kentucky Democratic figure.

“Barack Obama’s candidates preach independence but they practice loyalty above all else. And tonight, I’m confident of this: Kentuckians will not be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama’s candidate," he said, hitting on a main narrative in attacks against her.

But Grimes hit back, declaring in her own victory speech that she's "not an empty dress...not a rubber stamp..not a cheerleader." Instead, she said she's a "strong Kentucky woman" and an "independent thinker.

“Mitch McConnell would have you believe that President Obama is on Kentucky’s 2014 election ballot,” Grimes said. “Senator McConnell, this race is between you and me.”

And while Democrats would have preferred to fight Bevin in the general, they’ve been gleeful at the contentious primary fight, as it means Grimes has had months to raise money and campaign largely under the radar.

McConnell is a top target for Democrats, as Kentucky remains one of few offensive opportunities to insulate against inevitable losses as they fight to maintain their six-seat majority this cycle. The general is likely to be one of the most expensive and hard-fought races in the nation.

—This piece was updated at 1 a.m.