FRANKFORT — Matt Bevin is getting some outside help in his uphill battle to unseat U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the May Republican primary — and a lot of it targets Republican strongholds in southeastern Kentucky.
The Madison Project, a Washington-based conservative group that supported Republican Ted Cruz in his Texas Senate campaign, announced a week ago it will open five Kentucky get-out-the-vote offices for Bevin.
Then on Thursday, the group announced it is erecting billboards in Clay, Laurel, Madison, Pulaski and Whitley counties attacking McConnell. All but Madison are heavily Republican in registration.
A spokeswoman for McConnell’s campaign blasted the group, saying it is “masquerading as a conservative group,” but is aiding liberal groups that attack McConnell.
There are three versions of the billboards: one blames McConnell for supporting Wall Street bailouts; one says healthcare costs have increased 71 percent during his time in office; and the third ties McConnell to the national debt.
Their placement in rural Republican areas is no accident, according to Daniel Horowitz, policy advisor for the Madison Project.
“That area has a treasure trove of Republican primary voters,” Horowitz explained. “Added together, there are more Republican primary voters in that area who voted in the 2010 primary than there are in Jefferson County.”
The Madison Project is an independent expenditure group. It cannot coordinate with the Bevin campaign, and Rachel Semmel, Bevin’s spokeswoman, said she has no information regarding the Madison Project’s plans.
The group has been active in other Republican primaries, notably supporting Cruz in 2012 and is targeting the McConnell-Bevin.
Horowitz said his group’s supporters want a consistently conservative representation in Washington and McConnell “is more concerned about his self-interest” conservative positions.
“His ideology is power, not conservatism,” Horowitz said. “Sure he’s talking like a conservative now, but as soon as he has no reason to fear us, he moves back to the middle.”
Horowitz said he and other Madison Project staff, like political director Drew Ryun, conducted “a listening tour with conservative groups” in Kentucky in the spring of 2013 to gauge support for a challenge to McConnell and found “he’s not well-liked and he’s vulnerable.” Once Bevin announced he would run, Horowitz said, they saw people they’d talked to previously coming out for Bevin.
Madison Project staff subsequently conducted training sessions for get-out-the-vote offices they plan in Glasgow, Bowling Green, Florence, Owensboro and Louisville.
They will be manned by a combination of paid staff and volunteers who will use traditional canvassing methods: phone banks; mailers; and door-to-door appeals. They’ll use the computerized targeting system first used on Cruz’s behalf in 2012, Horowitz said.
“We want to make sure voters know there is a competitive race and McConnell won’t get a free ride (in the primary) as he has for 29 years — that he has to justify why we should send him back to Washington.”
Horowitz said the five GOTV locations were purposely placed in areas where McConnell has run well in the past to lessen his advantage in there while Bevin tries to roll up a winning margin elsewhere — like southeast Kentucky where the billboards are going up.
Former Barren County Republican Judge/Executive David Dickerson has supported McConnell in previous elections but he’s backing Bevin this time and he’s helping organize the Glasgow GOTV office.
“McConnell has always done well in Barren County,” Dickerson said. “But that’s changing because people recognize he voted for the bailouts and his willingness to call conservative activists like me the fringe. That’s turning people off.”
McConnell has criticized groups like the Madison Project and Senate Conservatives Fund, for supporting primary challenges to Republican incumbents, saying the “fringe groups” cost Republicans control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012.
“Obviously this group is committed to electing an Obama Democrat in Kentucky and they’ll join a long list of national liberal groups who have been wasting their money attacking Mitch McConnell,” Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the McConnell campaign, said Monday.
“It is amusing, however, that they’ve chosen to masquerade as a conservative organization by endorsing a New England millionaire who decries partisanship, takes taxpayer bailouts, and lies on his resume. They clearly know nothing about Kentucky conservatives.”
Horowitz said his organization — like the Senate Conservatives Fund — is touting its endorsement of Bevin to its extensive email list of supporters and telling them how to contribute to Bevin.
Bevin announced Thursday he raised $900,000 in the final quarter of the year, much of it from small contributors like those directed to his campaign by the Madison Project and the SCF. That will leave him far behind McConnell, who had raised $17 million through the third quarter and has yet to announce how much he raised in the fourth. (Neither Bevin nor McConnell’s Federal Election Commission reports were available online Monday afternoon.)
Bevin announced he’d raised $820,000 in the third quarter, but $600,000 of that was his own contribution. Horowitz said the $900,000 figure is impressive because it comes from small donors while McConnell’s incumbency and position as Minority Leader in the Senate draws larger contributions from special interests.
While Bevin may benefit from Madison Project’s help, some outside support may prove controversial.
Greg Fettig, of Unbridled Liberty, a tea party group, lives in Indiana and announced last week he will help organize Bevin voters this spring. Fettig did the same for tea party candidate Richard Mourdock who upset Republican incumbent Richard Lugar in the 2012 Indiana primary but lost the general election.
The Huffington Post Monday reported Fettig said in an interview that President Barack Obama is “a Muslim communist” and an “illegal” president. He’s also suggested federal government conspiracies, which could lead to a “second American revolution,” according to the Huffington Post article published online Monday.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.