By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
Some Kentucky tea party activists aren’t happy with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, and his choice of a campaign manager who previously worked for Sen. Rand Paul and his father, Ron Paul, isn’t going to change their minds.
John Kemper, a Lexington homebuilder and an unsuccessful candidate in Republican primaries for Congress in 2010 and state auditor in 2011, sent out a news release Monday night announcing Kentucky tea party groups “will not allow our message or movement to be co-opted for political purposes.”
The news release lists 13 local tea party organizations and said McConnell and the Republican Party of Kentucky are misrepresenting themselves as sympathetic to tea party groups.
McConnell hasn’t always endeared himself to those on the right because of his leadership position and history of stepping into congressional impasses to work out a compromise. Most recently, McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden brokered a deal to increase taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year and avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, figures to be a key target for Democrats in 2014 who would like to see him weakened by a primary challenge.
Last fall McConnell hired Jesse Benton as his campaign manager. Benton managed Ron Paul’s unsuccessful run for president and Rand Paul’s successful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. The hiring was viewed as a way to pacify tea party discontent and head off a potential 2014 primary challenge.
Kemper said that hasn’t persuaded some tea party activists or precluded a primary challenger.
“The fiscal cliff deal was kind of the last straw for our member groups,” Kemper said. “And the misrepresentation of Jesse Benton, as if he represents tea party folks, bothers some people.”
Benton, however, said McConnell is a tea party ally.
“Leader McConnell is a great friend of the Kentucky tea parties and is committed to giving them a seat at the table and bringing their voices to Washington,” Benton said in a statement.
“I have been taking that message to grassroots groups all over the state and have had a wonderful reception,” he said.
Kemper said he might challenge McConnell himself.
“I’m probably on a short list of potential candidates,” Kemper said. He said a well-funded candidate could prove formidable and there are groups interested in funding a challenge.
Preston Bates, executive director of the Liberty for All PAC, which supported new 4th District Republican Congressman Thomas Massie in a Republican primary last year, said the PAC might consider funding the right challenger.
“We haven’t closed the door on doing something in this Senate race,” Bates said. “I personally tend to agree with the sentiments in the press release, but we didn’t have any official involvement.”
Kemper doesn’t dispute the Pauls apparently gave their blessing to Benton going to work for McConnell or that Rand Paul has openly been supportive of McConnell.
“Rand Paul remains enormously popular with the tea party,” Kemper said. “Some have problems with his close association with Senator McConnell over the past year.”
Not all tea party groups in Kentucky signed onto the news release.
Sally O’Boyle said members of the Lexington tea party found out about the news release last weekend.
“We weren’t consulted,” O’Boyle said. “None of us are big fans of Mitch McConnell, but we’re huge Rand Paul supporters and McConnell has been very good to Paul. And lately (McConnell) has done a few things we think are better.”
Jenean Hampton, chairwoman of the Bowling Green SOKY tea party, said the news release was approved by the group’s steering committee.
RONNIE ELLIS is based in Frankfort and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.