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The Other Kentucky Derby

Will Mitch McConnell prevail on a muddy track?

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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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.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

“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.”

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