Several national conservative groups put Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on notice Wednesday that they may back a Tea Party primary challenger to him in 2014, giving the Kentucky senator an unwanted headache as he heads into reelection.
"We're open to supporting Matt Bevin's campaign and will be waiting to see if the grassroots in Kentucky unite behind him. The only way to defeat Mitch McConnell is to inspire the grassroots to rise up and fight for their freedoms," SCF executive director Matt Hoskins said in a statement.
"We will also be watching to see if Mitch McConnell debates the issues, or if he conducts a dirty smear campaign. If McConnell doesn't respect the voters enough to defend his own record, he doesn't deserve to be in the Senate," Hoskins added.
The Club for Growth also fired a shot across McConnell's bow.
“The Club for Growth PAC met with Matt Bevin many months ago, and we’d like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Senator McConnell on the issues,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in a statement.
Bevin, an Army veteran and investment firm executive, officially launched his campaign on Wednesday.
“The Club’s PAC will watch Kentucky’s Senate race – as it would with any race – over the coming months to determine if our involvement is warranted,” Chocola said.
Bevin, 46, will need support from outside groups if he hopes to have a chance at toppling McConnell, who has nearly $10 million cash on hand for his reelection fight and has already gone up with ads characterizing his primary opponent as "Bailout Bevin."
Joining SCF and the Club for Growth, The Madison Project hammered McConnell for an attack ad on Bevin in a statement that characterized the offense as "the scorched earth politics of personal destruction."
McConnell’s ad refers to the $200,000 in state grants Bevin obtained to help his family's Connecticut-based bell-making company rebuild after a 2012 fire, as well as a number of tax liens the company was assessed with for failing to pay $116,000 in taxes.
The company was characterized in 2011 in a local newspaper as the number one tax delinquent firm in East Hampton, Conn.
A spokesperson for Bevin said that he hadn't taken over complete control of the company until August 2011, after which he paid off the back taxes, and personally loaned the company $1 million to help do so. The spokesperson also said that Bevin had paid back most of the state grants.
“It’s great to see Senator McConnell suddenly concerned about taxes and bailouts, especially when he has voted for every federal bailout under the sun,” Drew Ryun, head of the Madison Project, said in a statement.
Ryun cited McConnell’s support of a deal to avoid the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ – which the Republican leader negotiated with Vice President Biden — as particularly egregious.
Ryun defended Bevin as someone "who paid back all the taxes owed on his uncle’s business with his personal wealth and put his own fortune on the line to save a cherished eight generation business that burned to the ground overnight.”
Even as national conservative groups put McConnell on notice, a coalition of 15 Kentucky Tea Party groups said it was "proud and excited" to endorse Bevin outright.
"It is time to send a true conservative Kentucky Senator to Washington," the United Kentucky Tea Party said in a statement.
Updated at 4:25 p.m.