Dark Horse

Tea Partier Matt Bevin Is Selling Himself as the Anti-Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell’s Tea party opponent in the Kentucky race for the U.S. Senate is largely unknown, but his best shot may be to change his name and run as Not Mitch McConnell.

To spend time around Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky race for U.S. Senate, is to hear some Olympic-level name-butchering.

“We’re in Kentucky, dude,” Bevin said. “How many variations of Bevin are there? Many. Bevins, Blevins, Belvin, Belvins, I’m sure. Or Bevin even with an -eavin or… Bivin or Bivins. And we’re probably all cousins if you go back far enough.”

With name recognition such a problem, and with only four months to go until the Kentucky Republican primary, Bevin might be better off just changing his name to Not Mitch McConnell.

This race, after all, is not about Matt Bevin. It’s about a wounded five-term senator with anemic poll numbers and a long list of enemies.

For McConnell’s foes on the right, Bevin is a rallying point. Or he could be if enough of them knew who he was.

This week, while freezing rain pounded the snow-covered streets of downtown Lexington, Bevin sat down for an interview at the Lexington Club and acknowledged that the race has become about much more than him.

“Clearly,” Bevin answered when asked if the outside Tea Party groups, like the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) or the Madison Project, are less interested in electing him than they are in beating McConnell.

“He’s the one who’s been in office for 30 years,” Bevin said. “I’m a guy who a few months ago they didn’t know existed. Really and truly it wasn’t like, ‘If we could just get that Matt Bevin guy …’ Of course not. But they know that what we have isn’t working—that the bailouts and the amnesty and the expansion of government and the sweetheart deals and the cronyism andall the nonsense that’s leading us down this slippery slope of disaster. They know that ain’t working.”

Most Southern towns of any size have something like the Lexington Club, where behind a nondescript door with a keypad lies a warmly decorated clubhouse, complete with a fire in the fireplace, thick cigar smoke in the air, and portraits of both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee on the wall.

The presence of both portraits signify the state’s complicated past. But the present is not much less complex: The Bevin-McConnell race is the biggest battle yet in a Republican civil war that’s been raging since 2010.

And Bevin’s reinforcements have begun to arrive in Kentucky.

The SCF kicked in half of the $900,000 Bevin raised in the last quarter of 2014. The Madison Project is opening five Get Out the Vote offices in areas in which McConnell has traditionally done well. FreedomWorks recently endorsed Bevin, but they too had trouble with his name.

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“If you have not heard, FreedomWorks has recently endorsed Matt Blevins for U.S. Senate and we are now looking to employ Field Staffers for Kentucky,” said one email.

For his part, McConnell is spoiling for a fight.

The state’s senior senator has a plan: Trounce Bevin, dry up fundraising for outside groups, send a message, win the war and possibly a Republican majority in the Senate.

And he doesn’t seem to be sweating what is described with debatable accuracy as a Tea Party challenge. In recent visits to Lexington, McConnell has extolled the virtues of Medicare Part D and even called President Obama “smart.”

While it seems obvious that McConnell has at times zigged and zaggedbecause of the guy in his rearview mirror, the senator’s most recent actions don’t portray a man in fear of a challenge to his conservative credentials.

When McConnell’s view of the race as a proxy war became clear last fall, Bevin and his allies were dismissive, but they ultimately embraced the idea of an all-out, winner-take-all throw-down.

“This race is the embodiment in a lot of of ways of everything that is at stake in the electoral process in this country,” Bevin said this week. “It’s just one race, but it’s a microcosm of a much bigger discussion that is happening, a much bigger struggle and tug-of-war and effort.”

Bevin typically talks fast and energetically, and when he thinks his chances are being dismissed or he is being counted out or slighted, he talks fast.

Bevin really picked up speed when asked if he agreed with the characterization that Kentucky is home to the GOP’s civil war.

“No, not even a little,” he said. “In fact, I think that fails to see the forest for the trees. That truly is a very limited view of what’s at stake. What is truly at stake really is a battle for the heart and soul of the entire political process. It’s more than just this party.”

Bevin continued: “It’s a question of whether or not we the people are still in charge. And by we the people, I mean, is this truly a government of and by and for the people. Is it average Joes like ourselves who go to the ballot box and truly decide who are going to be the leaders, not only of their party of their government at the local at the state at the federal level. Is that really who’s still in charge? Or is it going to be some handful of self-selecting and self-propagating, you know, career politicians who, in some smoke-filled room [pointing to an actual smoke-filled room] in a little place get together and decide who the next one is going to be.

Is it going to be the people of Kentucky who decides who their senator’s going to be or is it going to be Mitch McConnell saying this is my protege Trey, this is who your next senator’s going to be. And you, existing senator, I’m pushing you out now. I’m boxing you out. Imean that’s what’s at stake. This one happens to be a Republican race. But the same thing is really at stake across the spectrum, across the entire ideological spectrum.”

The shots at McConnell over Sen. Rand Paul and former Sen. Jim Bunning aren’t new. Bevin isn’t the least bit diplomatic when talking about McConnell (“[Democrats] play him like a sock puppet.”) or Alison Lundergan Grimes, the likely Democratic candidate in the general election (“They’re trying to groom her up and have her memorize a lot of stuff, but sometimes it comes out crooked because she hasn’t got it memorized properly. And it just comes out silly.”).

The problem for Bevin is that he can only show those fangs to a few people at a time. McConnell had just less than $11 million in the bank at the end of the year. Bevin has raised less than $2 million total including a $600,000 personal loan he gave his campaign in the third quarter of last year.

He needs to introduce himself. Or at the very least, he needs to be able to stop McConnell from taking care of the introduction.

The senator welcomed Bevin to the race with a 1-2 combination that raised questions about Bevin’s relationship with MIT and whether he accepted a taxpayer bailout from the state of Connecticut to rebuild a bell factory he owns that was destroyed in a fire.

“Matt Bevin is trying desperately to stay one step ahead of everyone actually finding out who he is by making up a new story everywhere he goes,” Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for McConnell, said. “He literally reinvents everything from his education, to his business career, to his views on the issues depending upon who he is talking to.”

Whether McConnell is secretly terrified, having a blast, or actually nonplussed about the threat, his staff and allies see the challenger as a fraud on the verge of being found out.

“Most people would be a little bashful when they know they’re just spinning yarn, but this guy does it with such ease and comfort that it’s seriously alarming to watch,” Moore said. “Apparently he’s concluded that when you’re living a lie, you need to do it with over-the-top arrogance in order to sell it. Otherwise, it’s hard to figure out how someone would have the audacity to suggest that the people of Kentucky haven’t been able to choose their senator until he showed up, as if the wake of politicians who have challenged McConnell are unquestionably inferior to the fictional caricature he’s created for himself.”

While Bevin and his staff have taken satisfaction from recent polls that show him beating Grimes in a head-to-head match-up, he trails McConnell in every poll by an overwhelming margin.

A Lexington Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll that came out at the end of the week reinforced the suggestion that Bevin isn’t a blip on the radar of most voters.

Overall, 10 percent of Kentuckians had a favorable view of Bevin to 17 percent unfavorable. So more than 70 percent don’t know enough about him to say whether they like him or not.

In the head to head, surveying only Republican primary voters, McConnell bests Bevin 55 percent to 29 percent. The cross-tabs suggest that McConnell isn’t losing support to Bevin among conservative Republicans any more than he’s bleeding moderate Republicans.

The poll, an automated survey conducted by SurveyUSA, found that respondents who identified themselves as conservatives picked McConnell 57 percent to 28 percent. That’s not far off from the self-identified moderate Republicans who went 54 percent for McConnell and 29 percent for Bevin.

The data suggests that voters either don’t know Bevin or don’t know what to make of him. If he’s the conservative candidate, then why do McConnell’s numbers get higher the farther right on the spectrum you look?

“If you’re a Republican, what’s your natural inclination? To say, ‘I’m conservative,’” Bevin said. “‘In fact, I’m very conservative.’ But frankly a lot of Republicans are not. Including Mitch McConnell. He’s not a conservative person. He’s at best a moderate person. He’s a progressive. Progressives by nature tend to be kind of middle of the road and moderate in their ideology.”

While McConnell as a progressive might be a tough sell, Bevin isn’t lacking for confidence, even saying that mispronunciations of his name are positive signs.

“When people mispronounce it, they’re doing it out of familiarity, ironically,” he said. It’s not a complicated name.

"Everyone in Kentucky knows somebody that they think is related to me. Because everybody knows a Bevin, a Bevins, a Blevins, a Belvin, a Bivens. Everybody. A Bibens. I mean you couldn’t throw a rock in this state without having somebody aware of somebody that they think hasthe same name as me. The fact that they put an S in there, or an L, I don’t care.”