By Alexander Bolton - 08/18/13 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats have long despised Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), but they hope he wins his primary race against Matt Bevin because they view him as an easier opponent in 2014.
Democrats say they hope McConnell will get roughed up in the Kentucky GOP primary but survives because beating a fresh face like Bevin in the general election would be difficult.
Democrats have subtly tried to influence other Republican primaries, such as last year’s contest in Missouri. But strategists predict Democratic donors and groups will stay away from Bevin.
“It would be an absolute disaster for McConnell to lose in a primary instead of a general [election]. It would send the signal that McConnell is not conservative enough when the signal we need to send is that Kentucky voters don’t like obstruction,” said Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which launched a new television ad in Kentucky this week hitting McConnell on Social Security.
Jimmy Cauley, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist, said Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the expected Democratic nominee, is better off facing McConnell.
“Democrats better pray that Bevin wounds him and doesn’t beat him,” he said.
“A wounded McConnell can be beat” in a state that otherwise often votes for Republicans in congressional races, he added. “Democrats might not beat Bevin. I think they have a shot at McConnell.”
Democrats point to internal polling from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) that shows McConnell is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent.
The most recent DSCC polling shows 62 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove of McConnell’s job performance while only 35 percent approve. That shows a drop compared to September 2008, when McConnell’s job approval was 51 percent, according to Democratic polling.
Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, called the survey “laughable cooked polling.”
“It’s so ridiculous it should be dismissed out of hand,” he said.
Benton said Democrats are overstating their fear of Bevin in hopes of building up his candidacy to inflict more damage on McConnell in next year’s primary.
“His biggest cheerleaders are Beltway Democrats who want to use every single means at their proposal to beat Mitch up,” he said.
Benton said outside liberal groups, including PCCC and Senate Majority PAC, have already spent $700,000 on ads attacking McConnell. The Senate Majority PAC ad blasted McConnell as a “guardian of gridlock.”
Democrats spent an estimated $1.5 million last year to help former Rep. Todd Akin win the Missouri Republican primary, betting that he would be a weak general election opponent. This has prompted speculation that they may pour funds into Kentucky to help Bevin.
One of Bevin’s biggest obstacles is raising enough money to compete with McConnell, who has amassed a $9.6 million war chest. Conservative Republican strategists who are sympathetic to Bevin’s campaign say he will have a hard time raising money in Kentucky or from business political action committees (PAC) in Washington. Neither wealthy Kentucky donors nor special interests based in Washington want to risk offending McConnell, who wields significant power over the legislative process.
Strategists say Bevin will have to raise at least $4 million or $5 million to compete with McConnell. While Bevin, a retired investment fund manager, is wealthy, he does not have the personal resources to fund his campaign entirely.
Bevin has also told potential supporters he believes his campaign should rely on donors instead of his own personal wealth. His reasoning is that McConnell could otherwise accuse him of trying to buy a Senate seat and that an inability to attract donors could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, according to a source familiar with his strategy.
Bevin will have to find a way to mobilize conservative donors across the nation.
“This is David versus Goliath. Bevin is a huge underdog,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is weighing whether to back Bevin. “I think he’s going to have to nationalize the race. I don’t see how he gets the money to get his message out without nationalizing the race.”
Hoskins said Bevin must show that he is able to unify Kentucky’s conservative grassroots behind him to attract support from major conservative fundraising groups.
“There’s only so much money in Kentucky, and in order for Bevin to get his message out, he’s going to have to get help from people all across the country,” he said.
He predicted fundraising in Kentucky and Washington would be limited by McConnell’s influence.
“I’m sure there are people in Kentucky who are afraid to cross him, [and] he has a corner on the K Street money and the establishment money in D.C.,” Hoskins added.
Bevin has made some progress building support among conservative activists in Kentucky and across the country.
The United Kentucky Tea Party has endorsed him and the Madison Project, a conservative group founded by former Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), has sent out a national fundraising appeal on his behalf.
But McConnell also has a share of Tea Party support. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the state’s most popular Tea Party politician, has endorsed him, as have the Tea Party Nation and TheTeaParty.net.
"We will have the resources to win both the primary and general elections,” said Sarah Durand, a spokeswoman for Bevin’s campaign. “It is not surprising that Democrats would rather face McConnell, a 30-year career politician who has been on a government paycheck his whole life and has put his own political career ahead of the interests of Kentucky."