By Alexander Bolton and Patrick Mortiere - 11/10/13 04:30 PM EST
The contentious intraparty battle between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and challenger Matt Bevin has split influential conservatives, revealing the divided loyalties in the struggle over the GOP’s future.
McConnell’s clout in Washington has kept pivotal conservative leaders in check and complicated Bevin’s effort to mobilize the grassroots uprising he needs to win the contest scheduled for May 2014.
McConnell’s most valuable endorsements come from a trio of rising conservative stars in the Senate: Paul, and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Paul’s backing is all the more impressive because McConnell supported his opponent in the 2010 Kentucky GOP primary.
Bevin’s campaign received its strongest boost from the Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), which endorsed him last month.
He also has benefited from the harsh criticisms conservative opinion leaders, such as radio talk show host Mark Levin and RedState.com editor-in-chief Erick Erickson, frequently aim at McConnell.
The biggest prize, however, remains unclaimed. An endorsement from the Club for Growth could tip the race decisively. The group spent more than $2 million to defeat former Sen. Dick Lugar in the 2012 Indiana Republican primary and helped oust former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in 2010.
Bevin’s conservative allies say there’s a 50-50 chance of the Club plunging into the race to defeat McConnell. It would help steer millions of dollars against the GOP leader.
“The lines are being drawn and it remains to be seen if Club for Growth gets off the bench,” said Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project, a conservative fundraising group that endorsed Bevin in late July.
Ryun said, “this is the epicenter of tension between the free-market conservative movement, the Tea Party groups and the establishment.”
Conservative strategists say the big-time fundraising groups are less likely to get involved in the emerging Senate Republican primary battles in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia because viable Tea Party challengers have yet to emerge. In Texas, the danger posed to Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who faces reelection next year, has waned.
This leaves Kentucky and Mississippi, where state Sen. Chris McDaniel will challenge Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), as the major battlegrounds over the party’s future in Congress.
McConnell ratcheted up the brewing war this week when he blasted the Senate Conservatives Fund. He accused it of undermining Republican efforts to win back the Senate by backing conservative candidates who lost general elections.
The fund "has elected more Democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the last three cycles," he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.
Matt Hoskins, the Senate Conservatives Fund’s executive director returned fire Friday in an interview with The Hill. He said conservatives would be flocking in greater numbers to support Bevin if they were not worried about retaliation.
“Certainly he is trying to threaten and intimidate people. He’s trying to scare people away from this race and away from Matt Bevin,” Hoskins said. “That is the only strategy he has. He can’t win the argument on the issues so he has to use bully tactics to win.”
Dan Judy, a Republican pollster, said many conservative leaders are leery about backing Bevin because “I suspect Sen. McConnell will win and win pretty convincingly.”
“It’s very, very difficult to beat the incumbent senator in the primary,” he added. “If Sen. McConnell wins, you don’t want to be on the wrong side.”
Al Cross, a political columnist and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky, explained that McConnell got his start in politics as the judge-executive of Jefferson County. His job then was to run programs and deliver services effectively.
“McConnell was a guy who got into government to make it work,” Cross said. “You could almost say he was a pro-government kind of guy.”
“Since he was elected to the Senate [in 1984], the party moved in an anti-government direction,” Cross added. “His political DNA is different then Jim DeMint’s and the other guys.”
Conservatives supporting Mitch McConnell:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)
Bill Bennett, Reagan’s secretary of Education
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Tea Party News Network
James Comer, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner
Conservatives supporting Matt Bevin:
Senate Conservatives Fund
The Madison Project PAC
Gun Owners of America
The United Kentucky Tea Party
Take Back Kentucky
Joe the Plumber (aka Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher)
Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief RedState.com
Wendy Caswell, president of Louisville Tea Party (a registered Democrat)