At the Bullitt County GOP’s Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner on February 6, Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback rose to speak on behalf of U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was away on business in Washington. McConnell is locked in a bitter primary fight, and it was up to Hornback to convince the party faithful to stick with Mitch.

“Senator McConnell is a solid conservative when it comes to protecting Kentucky families,” Hornback told the crowd before proceeding to give some examples of McConnell’s conservative accomplishments.

First, there was the 2004 tobacco buyout, which compensated farmers while ending a New Deal-era price-support program. “That brought $2.5 billion in the state of Kentucky,” Hornback said. “We can’t give him enough thanks for that.”

“He saved us from a milk cliff,” Hornback added, referring to the new $956 billion farm bill, without which, he said, milk could have spiked to $8 per gallon. Hornback pointed out that McConnell secured millions for research and infrastructure at Kentucky universities. And billions for Kentucky hospitals. And a national cancer research institute—right here in Kentucky—to boot.

“It takes influence to do those things. Those things don’t just happen,” Hornback said. “With Senator McConnell there, with his influence, with his tenure that he’s got, he’s got the ability to get these programs back here.”

Bringing bucks back to Kentucky may play well with some voters, but that kind of self-dealing is the very reason investor Matt Bevin decided to challenge McConnell in the Republican primary. “You brag about the fact that you’re burying our children and grandchildren in debt?” an incredulous Bevin said to me over coffee on February 7. “I’m not going to give you credit for that. I’m going to resent you for that.”

The feeling is mutual. The Kentucky GOP Senate primary is shaping up to be the nastiest race in the country. Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Kentucky in the late 1990s to run a multibillion-dollar investment firm, was labeled a “traveling East Coast con man” by the McConnell campaign the day news of his candidacy was reported. On a phone call with donors, McConnell said that the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC that’s funneled $1 million to Bevin, was run by “bullies” who deserve to be “punched in the nose.”

Bevin’s assessment of McConnell is just as harsh. He contends the Kentucky senator is “bought and sold” by corporate interests and even supports “wars for the benefit of large corporations in this country.”

“They’re thugs. They’re bullies,” Bevin said of McConnell and his associates. Bevin claims that McConnell’s “messengers” threatened him, warning that his businesses might be audited and his reputation destroyed if he challenged McConnell. “I was told that when they’re done with me, the people who sit behind me in church will get up and move when I come in.”

McConnell associates tried to use carrots as well as sticks, according to Bevin, to keep him out of the race. “You wanna run for Congress? You wanna be governor? You wanna be this? You wanna be that?” he said he was asked. “Anything—anything but this role. For this, I’m like the devil incarnate for this role.”

Bevin wouldn’t reveal who threatened him (“People. That’s all I’ll say.”), “but the more of them there were, the more determined I was to break this cabal.”

The rancor in the race suggests the stakes are high. The Senate Conservatives Fund has declared this the “most important Senate race” in the country. “The outcome of the Republican primary in Kentucky will determine the direction of the Republican Party for years to come,” wrote SCF executive director Matt Hoskins, a protégé of former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, in a January 28 fundraising email.

But a more plausible explanation is Sayre’s law, named after a Columbia professor who believed academic disputes were so intense precisely because so little was at stake. When you look closely at the primary, Bevin and McConnell appear less like warriors fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican party than two of Professor Sayre’s squabbling colleagues.

Consider their dispute over earmarks and spending. Bevin condemns McConnell for bankrupting the country, but when I asked him which of McConnell’s projects in Kentucky were wasteful, he would name only one. “I was just in Owensboro the other day. There’s like this big playground with cement palm trees and stuff,” Bevin said. “It’s lovely and it’s nice and all, and I don’t even know where that money came from, but [McConnell] apparently helped shake it from somewhere.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund denounced the bill that ended the government shutdown in October for including a “Kentucky Kickback”—more than $2 billion in funding for a lock and dam project on the Ohio River. But Bevin told me he “absolutely” supports that “critical” project, though he thinks it was inappropriate to include it in the bill to end the shutdown. Bevin opposed the 2014 McConnell-backed farm bill, but supports the law’s crop insurance program—the government’s “most expensive farm program,” according to the Heritage Foundation.

When it comes to entitlements, the biggest driver of the debt, Bevin said that Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare (which McConnell voted for) is simply a “step in the right direction”; he wouldn’t say what more needs to be done. “We have to take a look at, basically develop actuarial tables, and risk pools, and statistical models that basically allow us to make sure that it’s financially feasible.”

Then there’s the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, which McConnell called one of the Senate’s “finest moments” and Bevin denounced as a Wall Street bailout in one of his first ads attacking McConnell. On February 11, Politico reported that Bevin signed a 2008 letter to shareholders calling TARP a “positive” development—“don’t call it a bailout,” the letter read.

Bevin said his signature was a mere formality required by law, and the opinions expressed were not his, but those of a colleague who wrote and also signed the letter. According to securities law experts, if Bevin didn’t hold the opinions expressed in the letter he signed, he was violating the law.

Even if Bevin were able to draw a clear contrast on these issues, there’s still the problem that they’re mostly old Bush-era grievances. During Obama’s tenure, McConnell has been reviled by the left for working to obstruct the Democratic agenda at almost every turn. The current complaints against McConnell from the right rest mostly on the theory that his unwillingness to “hold the line” or “stand firm”—not the fact that Democrats control the Senate and White House—prevented conservative policy victories on the debt, taxes, and Obamacare.

In Bevin’s telling, Republicans could have stopped the 2013 “fiscal cliff” tax hikes if they’d simply let all rates rise, as they were automatically scheduled to do by law, and then wait for Democrats and President Obama to give in to Republican demands. McConnell instead cut a deal with Vice President Joe Biden that permanently preserved the Bush income tax rates for individuals who earn $400,000 or less and repealed a part of Obamacare known as the CLASS Act.

The “stand firm” theory of legislative negotiation was tested in October, when the government shut down following a failed effort to defund Obamacare. According to Bevin, the problem was that the plan wasn’t carried out flawlessly. He believes that President Obama and enough Democratic senators would have eventually caved if McConnell and his Republican colleagues had filibustered the bill to defund Obamacare until Senate Democrats agreed to vote for it. “By voting for cloture, you guaranteed there would never be a debate, there would never be a discussion,” Bevin said. “McConnell doesn’t really oppose Obamacare.”

Bevin, an Iraq war opponent who voted for a third-party presidential candidate in 2004 (the Constitution party’s Michael Peroutka), claims that McConnell also secretly supported U.S. military intervention in Syria last year, even though McConnell said he’d vote against it. “[H]e was for it because a lot of these special interests are people that pay good money to him to make sure that he’s for everything that ever moves we’re going to shoot at. I disagree. I’m a former military officer. I understand the purpose of our military, and it’s not to engage in wars for the benefit of large corporations in this country.”

Asked what should be done about the global resurgence of al Qaeda, Bevin said: “You cut them off financially, economically, you do everything you can diplomatically to marginalize them, to box them out, to ostracize them, to keep them in a small space. To the extent they come out and they get on our soil and they want to cause trouble, smack them down.” What about George W. Bush’s contention that we need to defeat terrorists abroad before they reach the United States? “Bad idea,” he said.

Lacking a clear line of attack and trailing McConnell by more than 20 points in the polls, Bevin faces an uphill path to victory in the May 20 primary. But it would be foolish to write him off just yet. Primary challengers have closed much bigger gaps in shorter periods of time. Polls show both McConnell and Bevin neck-and-neck with Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election, so there’s a case to be made that Bevin, without McConnell’s baggage as a five-term senator, would have a better shot at victory in November.

Bevin’s argument against McConnell is weak, but the McConnell campaign’s brief against Bevin is entirely character-based. They point to his contradictions on TARP and résumé-puffing on his LinkedIn page—Bevin listed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under education, when he’d only attended an unaffiliated program held at an MIT conference center—as warnings that he’s a huckster not ready for primetime.

The McConnell campaign hasn’t attacked Bevin for taking extreme positions that would make him unelectable. Kentucky is the state, after all, where Republicans nominated Rand Paul in 2010 despite warnings that he was too extreme on fiscal issues and soft on national security. Paul won the general election by a comfortable margin. And over the past few years, McConnell has allied himself with Paul, hiring his campaign manager and speaking on the floor of the Senate in support of Paul’s filibuster about President Obama’s use of drones.

So don’t expect McConnell to hit Bevin for sharing Paul’s foreign-policy worldview. But you can expect many more bitter, personal attacks. Remember, it’s Sayre’s law.

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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