FreedomWorks endorses McConnell primary foe. Senate race tightening?

Challenger Matt Bevin lags 22 points behind Sen. Mitch McConnell among Kentucky voters ahead of the GOP primary, but he's cut the gap in half. Enter FreedomWorks, with as much as $500,000 to be used for Bevin.

Mike Lawrence/The Gleaner/AP
Senate candidate Matt Bevin speaks at a meet and greet, Jan. 14, in Henderson, Ky. The Louisville businessman is running against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky's GOP primary next May.

The conservative political group FreedomWorks on Wednesday endorsed Matt Bevin, the businessman who’s mounting a primary challenge to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

The nod wasn’t a shock. Mr. Bevin is a tea party favorite who is running to Senator McConnell’s right, and FreedomWorks is among the party activist groups trying to rid the GOP of what they consider to be Gumby-flexible establishment Republicans.

McConnell, who helped broker the deal that ended last year’s government shutdown, is high on the FreedomWorks hit list. As it endorsed Bevin, the group published a list of what it terms McConnell’s top 10 worst votes, which in its eyes include his vote in 2003 to pass President George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D proposal; his 2008 vote to pass the TARP financial bailout bill; and his 2013 legislative maneuvering, which reopened the federal government and allowed Democrats to lever Obamacare implementation funding back into the federal budget.

FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal that his group's political action committee is ready to put as much as $500,000 into the Bevin race.

“The feedback we have gotten from activists on the ground all over Kentucky is, they want to elect Matt Bevin,” Mr. Kibbe told the Courier Journal.

In recent days, Bevin and his supporters in the party have been pushing stuff they see as good news in an attempt to build momentum behind his campaign. Wednesday’s FreedomWorks endorsement is one such bit. Another is a Jan. 2 Human Events/Gravis poll in which McConnell leads Bevin among Kentucky Republican voters by 22 points, 53 percent to 31 percent.

Yes, that seems like a big margin, but other pollsters earlier in the year put the gap between the candidates as big as 52 percentage points. Thus, the latest poll shows Bevin is catching up, writes influential conservative pundit and radio host Erick Erickson on the right-leaning RedState site.

“Objectively he’s closed a pretty significant gap,” writes Mr. Erickson. “More importantly, conservatives are only just now starting to turn full focus to the primaries. Kentucky may have one before June, but there is still time for conservatives to rally to Matt Bevin.”

As to finances, Bevin aides have said their fourth-quarter 2013 fundraising was strong, at $900,000, and that the campaign now has about $1 million in the bank.

He’ll probably need every penny. Bevin is facing more than an uphill battle. Taking on the wily McConnell is more like climbing a vertical rock face using only your hands.

Twenty-two points is still a hefty difference, and it’s possible that Bevin’s improvement in recent months reflects simply an increase in name recognition among Kentucky voters. As to money, McConnell had raised $12 million for the current political cycle through the end of September 2013. He had almost $10 million cash on hand. (His campaign hasn’t released fourth-quarter figures.)

Then there is style. McConnell in past campaigns has proved himself to be adept at identifying his opponents’ weak points, and hitting them over and over in ads. There’s a reason Democrat Ashley Judd decided to pass on this race, after all.

With Bevin, that may be his business record. His family bell-manufacturing firm is located in Connecticut, not the Blue Grass State. It took state aid money to rebuild after the factory burned down.

Thus, McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore had this to say about Wednesday’s FreedomWorks endorsement: “A group that used to pride itself on grass-roots empowerment has endorsed a self-funding New England millionaire who takes taxpayer bailouts for his uninsured business, says he is a constitutionalist when he knows little about the Constitution and falsely claims he attended MIT.” 

McConnell ads already label his challenger “Bailout Bevin.” You can bet every Kentucky voter will hear that phrase in coming months – multiple times.

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