What many have been anticipating for more than a year has finally happened: Kentucky tea party activists have sharply criticized U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for not being sympathetic to many of the tea party’s causes and for not doing enough to reduce federal spending. Whether that criticism leads to a serious challenger for McConnell in the May 2014 Republican primary remains to be seen, but criticism of the Senate minority leader from tea party activists is hardly surprising.
McConnell is a Mitch-come-lately to the tea party movement. In the 2010 Republican Senate primary, McConnell endorsed then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the Republican nomination to succeed U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, and virtually ignored Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul until Paul became the darling of the tea party movement and defeated Grayson in the primary and Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election.
Overnight, McConnell became a true believer of the tea party movement. The senator who for years boasted of using “earmarks” to bring projects to Kentucky, including $10 million for the Ashland riverfront, suddenly swore off earmarks, calling them wasteful and fiscally irresponsible. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th, did the same.
McConnell also became friends and political allies with Paul, and McConnell named Paul’s former campaign director to head his campaign in 2014.
But McConnell’s sudden transformation into a fiscal conservative struck some tea party loyalists as insincere. One was John Kemper, a Lexington homebuilder and an unsuccessful candidate in Republican primaries for Congress in 2010 and state auditor in 2011. On Monday, Kemper sent out a news release 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. For years, McConnell has controlled the state GOP on both the state and national level.
McConnell hasn’t always endeared himself to “True Believers” on the right because of his leadership position and history of stepping into congressional impasses to work out compromises. 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.”
While there has been much speculation that McConnell may face a Republican challenger next year, no prominent challenger has emerged. Kemper said he might challenge McConnell himself, but Kemper is not well known. However, Kemper 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.”
Liberty for All, based in Texas, has deep pockets. That’s what any challenger to McConnell would need to be successful.
Even talk of a GOP challenger to McConnell in 2014 elates leaders of the Kentucky Democratic Party and raises the odds of the party finding a more formidable challenger for McConnell’s Senate seat than actress Ashley Judd, who admits she is seriously considering running for McConnell’s seat.
Stay tuned. There’s infighting in the Kentucky Republican Party. That can only benefit the Democratic Party in a state that has become strongly Republican in congressional races.