McConnell to stay '10,000 miles away' from primary contest in Kentucky

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has signaled he is finished with playing powerbroker in Kentucky Republican primary battles after knocking heads with the Tea Party in 2010.

McConnell is staying “10,000 miles away from any sort of primary” —  in the words of one ally — after he backed former Kentucky secretary of State Trey Grayson’s unsuccessful campaign against Rand Paul, who went on to become Kentucky's junior senator.

ADVERTISEMENT
“That’s a mistake you only make once,” an ally said of McConnell decision to support Grayson over Paul, a Tea Party favorite.

Specifically, McConnell is not about to wade in the primary to replace retiring Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), which could draw a bid from a senior Paul staffer.

“The wise political move for people at that level is to stay out of it. There’s a better than 90 percent chance a Republican will hold the seat. Why risk alienating a possible future colleague in the delegation?” said a Kentucky GOP source.

Conservative activists have been pushing William Henderson, Paul’s deputy chief of staff, to jump in the race.

“Many conservatives are talking him up and trying to get him to take the plunge,” said a Washington-based activist.

Henderson is considering it but has kept a poker face about his plans.

“People have reached out and encouraged me and I’m investigating it,” he said in a brief interview. “I don’t want the Tea Party vote and conservative vote to split. I want to get the most conservative candidate to win the nomination.”

GOP strategists familiar with Bluegrass State politics say Henderson would be helped by Paul’s grassroots network and supporters and his long affiliation with former Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who is still viewed as a hero in northern Kentucky. Henderson worked 11 years for Bunning as legislative director, counsel and staff director of Bunning’s Banking subcommittee.

“His main appeal is that he would be one of the most knowledgeable people about federal problems in the race,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist based in Kentucky.

“The question is, can you win the seat if you’re not from the district or northern Kentucky?” Jennings added.

Henderson is from Kentucky’s 1st District, represented by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.).

“He knows the issues and knows the district and has been on the front lines with Jim Bunning. His affiliation with Bunning could give him protection from the attack that he’s a carpetbagger, if someone levels that charge,” Jennings said.

The two prospective candidates who would have been seen as McConnell’s favorites, Grayson and former McConnell chief of staff Hunter Bates, have said they will not run. Grayson says he’s happy serving as director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and Bates said he wants to spend more time raising his children.

Campbell County businessman Kevin Sell, who was thought to be Davis’s favored candidate, has also passed on a bid.

State Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington (R) and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore have announced they will run for the seat.

A formidable candidate would be state Sen. Katie Stine (R), the first woman to serve as president pro tem of the Kentucky state senate.

Other possibilities are Ben Dusing, a former federal prosecutor, and Thomas Massie, the Lewis County judge-executive.

Massie comes from a more rural part of the district but could swipe the nomination if candidates from Boone and Campbell counties divvy up votes in the population centers.