Whether you love him, hate him or are totally indifferent, it is difficult not to feel empathy for Matt Bevin, the Kentucky businessman and Tea Party candidate who, on Tuesday, will attempt to depose one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Mr. Bevin on Monday sent out an e-mail to supporters pleading for last-minute donations: $5, $25, $250, anything. "Dig deep in and give what you can," Mr. Bevin wrote, offering in return to mount a relentless effort to repeal President Barack Obama's 2010 health-care law and to limit his time in Washington to two terms.
Despite starting strong, most accounts of the campaign for the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky say Mr. Bevin will lose to Mr. McConnell, a less-than-popular figure who nonetheless remains a force in the state he has represented in Washington for 29 years. He flexed his muscle by spending more than $11-million (U.S.) through the first four months of the year, mostly on advertisements belittling Mr. Bevin.
It's the early story of 2014 midterm elections. Tuesday will be the busiest day yet of primary season, as six states narrow the field of candidates for November's midterms. Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest Mr. Bevin's likely fate will be shared by Tea Party candidates for Senate in Georgia and Oregon.
Their defeat would represent more victories for the Republican establishment, which is attempting to take control after watching Tea Party hardliners nominate unelectable candidates in 2010 and 2012. This year, party elders, lobbyists and big-money donors pledged to put as much attention on the primaries as on the midterms themselves.
The stakes are high. Dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama presents Republicans with a legitimate shot at winning control of the Senate in November, as American voters tend to get back at unpopular presidents by punishing the party they represent. The path to victory is narrow: Republicans need a net gain of six seats and the Democratic Party will be defending seats in seven traditionally Republican states. That means leaving nothing to chance in states the Republicans should win, including Kentucky, which voted for former president Bill Clinton and has a Democratic governor.
The strategy appears to be working, but at a tremendous financial cost.
Mr. Bevin, making his first bid for public office, suffered the fate of so many amateur candidates who discover politics is more difficult than it looks on television. As the campaign drew on, he struggled to show a command of the issues beyond his talking points. Blunders became more common, including a moment when he appeared to endorse cock-fighting.
But Mr. Bevin, 42, also ran into the wall of money Mr. McConnell and the establishment erected to halt whatever momentum he had. Mr. McConnell, 72, had no need to beg for donations Monday. He has raised about $22-million this year, spending about half of it so far, mostly on attack ads aimed at Mr. Bevin.
Mr. Bevin raised about $4-million and had spent almost all of it trying to unseat Mr. McConnell, according to OpenSecrets.org, a website the tracks U.S. political spending. Well over half the money raised by both candidates came from contributions from outside Kentucky.
Those sums are big even by the standards of the U.S. and its notoriously loose election-finance laws. Combined with the likely Democratic candidate in the November election, Allison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's three leading candidates for Senate have raised about $34-million so far in 2014 to represent a state of about 4.5-milion people. By comparison, the Conservative Party of Canada raised $33-million (Canadian) in all of 2011, the year Stephen Harper won his majority in the House of Commons.
The pattern is similar in the other states that will decide control of the Senate.
Like Kentucky, Georgia leans Republican, which is why more than half-a-dozen candidates are seeking the party's Senate nomination Tuesday. Also like Kentucky, the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn, is considered strong. The two establishment favourites in the Republican race – Representative Jack Kingston and former corporate executive David Purdue – have raised a combined $10.2-million, twice as much as everyone else in the contest combined.
Tea Party groups reject the notion that they are losing. The establishment's money hasn't bought moderation on the stump, as virtually every Republican candidate seeking a nomination this year, including Mr. McConnell, has had to become more strident or face defeat.
"McConnell is more conservative than ever," said Jasmine Farrier, a political science professor at the University of Louisville. "That's not necessarily a personal choice. There is no doubt he has become a more partisan figure."