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Mitch McConnell found himself on the losing end of one of the most pronounced tea-party-versus-establishment fights in his home state two years ago.
But as the Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky prepares to run for a sixth term in 2014, there is little evidence the movement that helped elect Sen. Rand Paul is preparing to take on McConnell.
The danger to McConnell next cycle from the right — and the left — appears marginal, even as he could be running for re-election as the Majority Leader in the first midterm of a Republican administration, depending on what happens this cycle.
The top name mentioned as a possible primary challenger was tea-party-affiliated businessman Phil Moffett, who barely lost the GOP gubernatorial primary to the establishment candidate in 2011.
But in a recent interview with Roll Call, Moffett definitively ruled out a 2014 Senate run. The pulse of the tea party in Kentucky is much weakened from 2010, and that’s good news for McConnell.
“The angst on the right — I don’t know whether it’s just diluted or diminished or just dispersed — but it’s less,” said Jon Deuser, ex-Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) former chief of staff.
David Adams, an influential Kentucky tea party organizer who was the campaign manager for Paul’s primary campaign, said “there’s no one even talking about” running against McConnell. “It’s a list right now that is zero,” he said, noting that in the tea party movement in Kentucky, “an excess of anger has led to a resurgence of apathy” as people are feeling that little can be done about the growing debt and deficit.
Any tea party candidate looking to take on McConnell, who had $5.1 million in the bank at the end of March, would have two distinct disadvantages, Bluegrass State political operatives said. The candidate would not be able to raise nearly as much money as McConnell will have, and Paul probably won’t support him or her.
“Sen. Paul and Leader McConnell have forged a strong relationship and created a number of pieces of legislation on behalf of their shared constituents,” Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley said in a statement. “It’s clear the commonwealth is best served with their combined efforts now and in the future.”
In-state activists said McConnell has built up his conservative grass-roots presence significantly since 2010.
“If somebody challenges McConnell, they’ll make a lot of noise,” a Kentucky Republican operative said. “But the guy’s got an incredible grass-roots organization. ... It’s deep and wide and reaches deep into the hollers of Kentucky.”
Still, the potential for an unknown businessman type — either a Republican or a Democrat — to take on McConnell and be buoyed by an anti-Washington mood is real. As the Republican leader, whether he’s in the minority or the majority, McConnell will have a gigantic target on his back.