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Tea Party upstarts take on incumbents in GOP primaries

Republican senate candidate Matt Bevin is in the running against Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. After a string of setbacks and losses, the insurgent Tea Party movement is at a crossroads, between learning to live within the Republican Party or pursuing its fight against those it sees as not conservative enough.

John Sommers/REUTERS

In another state, or maybe at some other moment in the future, Republican elders would be recruiting Matt Bevin. However, this is Kentucky and it is 2014. So the establishment is trying to crush him.

The Republican Party styles itself as the proper home for "job creators" and the protector of the Christian traditions on which the country was founded. Mr. Bevin, 47, is a successful entrepreneur who has a hand in 10 companies. He and his wife have nine children, five of their own and four of them adopted. The family car is a 12-seat, silver van that Mrs. Bevin calls "Apollo 12."

But this dream candidate is more nightmare for the Republican masterminds back in Washington who are trying to orchestrate a return to majority status in the Senate that would frustrate the final two years of Barack Obama's presidency.

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Such an outcome at midterm elections in November is entirely possible. The Republican lead in the House is too great for the Democratic Party to overcome and only one Republican senator – the popular Susan Collins of Maine – is facing re-election in a state won by Mr. Obama in 2012. Meanwhile, Democratic incumbents are on the run in a half dozen states that lean Republican and upsets are possible in places such as Colorado and New Hampshire. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win back the majority.

One would think the smell of victory would unite the party. Not yet. Mr. Bevin is seeking to take out one of the most influential figures in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A handful of others who, like Mr. Bevin, are benefiting from the support of various Tea Party groups, are challenging incumbents in primaries that began last week in Texas and will continue through the spring. The outcomes of these nominating contests could determine not control of the Senate but ultimately who controls the Republican party.

"Republicans are going to pick up seats. It's just a question of how many," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and editor-in-chief of Crystal Ball, a website focused on forecasting election outcomes.

The Republican upstarts, who, for the most part, are backed by various Tea Party groups, face long odds. Incumbency has significant advantages and the business lobby is rallying around the candidates it knows. John Cornyn, Texas's senior senator, beat his challenger by a wide margin in on Tuesday. But primary challenges count: in 2012, Richard Lugar, a five-term senator from Indiana, lost the nomination after he took his Tea Party challenger too lightly. The victor, a polarizing state official called Richard Mourdock, then lost the election, costing the Republicans a Senate seat they had held safely for more than three decades.

"We've learned to pay attention to Tea Party challenges," said Prof. Sabato. "We may unlearn it after this year, but we'll have to see."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has represented Kentucky since 1984, already has raised more than $18.2-million (U.S.) – compared with about $21-million in his last campaign in 2008 – even though the election still is seven months away. Much of that war chest is being used to fund attack ads aimed at Mr. Bevin, who is seeking elected office for the first time and has raised a mere $1.7-million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign funding.

"It's all about slash, attack and burn," Mr. Bevin said of Mr. McConnell's campaign at an event earlier this week in this eastern Kentucky town, where a man called Col. Harland Sanders bought a roadside cafe in 1931 and developed what would become a world-famous recipe for fried chicken. "This is all you have after 30 years in the Senate?"

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It's difficult for an outsider to assess whether Mr. Bevin warrants so much of Mr. McConnell's time and money. He says 22,000 people have contributed to his campaign, although only about 10 showed up at an event at Mexican restaurant on Thursday evening.

The received wisdom in Washington is that the old guard has the upper hand. Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell defied the Tea Party wings of their caucuses last month and worked with Democrats to raise the statutory debt limit, putting an end to painful era of fiscal brinksmanship that damaged the Republican Party's standing with the general public.

Mr. Bevin and others now are using the debt-ceiling vote to rally votes and money, accusing Mr. McConnell and Mr. Boehner of giving Mr. Obama a "blank check."

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week in suburban Washington it was not the party's old hands but the policy purists such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and another Tea Party favourite, who placed at the top of a straw poll of party faithful. Mr. McConnell received only a lukewarm reception from the Republican activists at the conference, according to the Hill newspaper.

Whether that will translate into votes for Tea Party challengers like Mr. Bevin is not clear . It was unusually cold and snowy in Kentucky last week and the primary isn't until May. Still, there is little evidence of a groundswell of support. Despite his standing as a Tea Party rebel, Mr. Paul, who could be Kentucky's most popular politician, is sticking with the custom and has endorsed his fellow sitting senator, Mr. McConnell.

"Matt Bevin has gotten a lot of attention that is disproportionate to his chances of winning," said Jasmine Farrier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville. "He's pushing so hard to the right. I don't see what Bevin has to offer to a statewide electorate."

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When Mr. Bevin is asked why his candidacy should be taken seriously, he points to the two young women with digital cameras at the back of the room, 'trackers' paid by groups affiliated with Mr. McConnell and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. If Mr. Bevin is such a long shot, why are his opponents tracking his every move?

"The path [to victory] is getting wider every day," Mr. Bevin told a few dozen local Rotarians at a lunchtime event at a buffet-style steakhouse. "People want to be represented by someone who is real."

Mr. Bevin was politely received and a few Rotary Club members left with lawn signs and bumper stickers.

"I was impressed," said John Bill Keck, a silver-haired real estate developer who said the lunchtime event was his first exposure to Mr. Bevin. Mr. Keck said he agreed with Mr. Bevin's forceful call for limiting the terms of elected representatives. He sought out Mr. Bevin for a picture and left asking campaign staff where he could make a donation.

"If he gets the word out, person-to-person, travelling the miles, then he does have the potential to win," Mr. Keck said.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More


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