McConnell challenger faces questions on Tea Party credentials

A businessman who has emerged as a potential primary challenger against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is virtually unknown among Tea Party activists in Kentucky.

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Matt Bevin, a Connecticut factory owner and an adviser at a Louisville, Ky.-based investment firm, has begun reaching out to local Tea Party groups to explore a bid against McConnell.

Some conservatives have long grumbled about McConnell because of his history of defending earmarks for his state and occasionally striking deals with Democrats.

Bevin, who is originally from New Hampshire and went to high school in Maine, sees the simmering discontent as an opportunity to knock off the five-term incumbent. He has crafted a sales pitch accentuated with Tea Party themes.

He has received some early positive reviews, but any effort to rally Tea Party activists behind his candidacy could be difficult. The Kentucky Tea Party movement is largely decentralized, and key activists had not heard of Bevin before The Hill reported this week that he was mulling a challenge to McConnell.

Bevin will have to convince Tea Party leaders that he is a more reliable ally than McConnell, despite having donated to a Democrat running for mayor of Louisville in 2009 and having worked with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) while securing $100,000 in state grants for his Connecticut bell factory, which burned down in a fire.

Bevin has reached out to Sarah Duran, the president of the Louisville Tea Party, several times over the past few weeks to discuss his interest in taking on McConnell. But other Tea Party activists around the state had no idea who he was until recently.

“I have no knowledge of him participating in any Tea Party events in Kentucky,” said John Kemper, spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party.

Kemper noted that Bevin gave money to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) shortly before the 2010 general election and appeared to be another establishment Republican jumping on to the Tea Party bandwagon.

“We’re leery of outside folks coming in saying they’re Tea Party when they don’t have a Tea Party background,” he said.

Kemper said any endorsement the Louisville Tea Party might give to Bevin would not hold for other Tea Party groups.

“The relationship does not exist with the Louisville Tea Party as it exists within the United Kentucky Tea Party,” he added.

Bevin said many Kentucky voters are frustrated with the “current representation in Washington.”

“At this time, I am simply listening to those who want to talk with me about a potential primary race,” he wrote in a 3 a.m. email from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “With respect to unifying support among various constituencies, they seem to be coalescing quite nicely on their own. A viable candidate should not have great difficulty in marshalling the requisite troops,” he said.

Bevin acknowledged that he has limited name identification among activists because “I am not a part of the political ranks.

“I just go to work each day and pay taxes like so many other hard working Kentuckians so that those who are in the political ranks can have a paycheck,” he said.

Bevin previously served as CEO of Integrity Asset Management, one of Louisville’s biggest investment firms, and as director of institutional marketing at National Asset Management Co. in Louisville.

Patrick Kelly, a self-described Tea Party libertarian candidate for Congress in the 2012 election, said he too was not previously aware of Bevin. He said it would be difficult of Bevin or even another candidate with stronger credentials to challenge McConnell because Paul, a prominent Tea Party leader, has backed McConnell.

“Rand has been the biggest Tea Party voice. If he’s not willing to get behind someone, it’s a much tougher race for an individual to mount something,” he said.

But Kelly said he would not necessarily fault Bevin for giving $500 to Greg Fischer, a Democratic candidate running for Louisville mayor, in 2009.

He was not aware of Fischer’s record, and noted that some Democrats are more conservative than Republicans.

Bevin said he has always been a registered Republican but does not always vote the party line.

“That simplistic approach to electing leaders is part of what is destroying our national discourse on substantive issues,” he said.

Bevin said he supported Greg Fischer in the Democratic mayoral primary because he was the most qualified candidate in the primary. He supported Hall Heiner in the Republican primary.

Fischer defeated Heiner in the general election.

Some local Tea Party activists have balked at the $100,000 Bevin’s bell company accepted from the state of Connecticut to pay for damage caused by a devastating fire. Insurance did not fully cover the damage.

“Mr. Bevin’s $100K in state grants sounds like a bailout to me? [sic] Isn’t opposition to bailouts what brought so many in the Tea Parties together in the first place?” Alan Brown Jr., president of the Nelson County Tea Party, wrote in a Facebook post.

Brown said in an interview that Bevin’s acceptance of public funds for his damaged factory was a source of concern but did not disqualify him from Tea Party backing.

“I think that to credibly represent the Tea Party and our values, it would be important for a candidate to not be on the same side of McConnell on the issue on bailouts. That’s a not a make-or-break issue but it was an early indicator that was not necessarily positive,” he said.

McConnell received criticism from home-state conservatives for supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program that Congress passed in 2008 to keep some of the nation’s biggest financial institutions from collapsing.

Brown said Tea Party leaders have interviewed “several people” in recent months about challenging McConnell. He named Kemper of the United Kentucky Tea Party as another possible challenger.

The United Kentucky Tea Party circulated a letter in late January suggesting it is a poised to support a conservative primary challenger against McConnell.

“The replacement of elected officials not committed to and demonstrating the principles of limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility is a mission of the UKTP,” the letter stated.

“The attempted co-opting of the Tea Party by the Republican Party of Kentucky leadership and Sen. McConnell through the hiring of former Campaign for Liberty leaders, and the intellectually dishonest labeling of these individuals as 'Tea Party leaders' in the media, is yet another misrepresentation of the Tea Parties, which will not be allowed to stand,” it stated.