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Roll Call

Mitch McConnell Prepared for 2014 Campaign

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

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 thats good news for McConnell.

The angst on the right I dont know whether its just diluted or diminished or just dispersed but its less, said Jon Deuser, ex-Sen. Jim Bunnings (R-Ky.) former chief of staff.

David Adams, an influential Kentucky tea party organizer who was the campaign manager for Pauls primary campaign, said theres no one even talking about running against McConnell. Its 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 wont 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. Its 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, theyll make a lot of noise, a Kentucky Republican operative said. But the guys got an incredible grass-roots organization. ... Its 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 hes in the minority or the majority, McConnell will have a gigantic target on his back.

In Kentucky, you need two signatures and 500 bucks and youre on the ballot, said former Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), who lost to Paul. Thats all it takes.

Crit Luallen, a former Kentucky state auditor and something of a senior stateswoman in Kentucky Democratic politics, explained that the campaign narrative against McConnell wont be difficult.

Hes lost touch with the people of Kentucky, she said. His real focus is on his national leadership role. She said the Bluegrass State needs a Senator not so caught up in the partisan rancor in Washington.

The pushback, allies of the Senator said, would be showcasing McConnells longstanding ties and devotion to Kentucky.

Anti-McConnell third-party groups, which substantially outspent those in favor of him in 2008 by about 5-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics will likely be blunted in 2014. Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff and close ally of the Senator, now runs the juggernaut pro-GOP group American Crossroads.

The Democratic bench to take on McConnell is deeper than the tea partys, but no one is making much noise about the race.

Im not sure anybody is going to run, one Kentucky Democratic operative bemoaned, with only a touch of hyperbole. The source noted Democrats resounding successes on the local and state levels and routine defeats in federal elections.

Luallen, state Sen. Dennis Parrett, state Auditor Adam Edelen and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes are mentioned as potential contenders. Parrett is a conservative, anti-abortion-rights, pro-gun-rights farmer and businessman who knocked off a 15-year GOP incumbent in 2010. Edelen, 37, has the look of a rising political star, and Grimes, 33, is politically well-connected.

Edelen and Grimes both have the advantage of not being up for re-election until 2015. And both, Democrats note, would allow for a strong contrast between a fresh new voice for Kentucky and McConnell, who will be 72 in November 2014.

Kentucky Democratic strategist Jim Cauley described Edelen as young and hungry.

But my fear for him is that hes never faced the machine, Cauley said. If theyve got any sense at all, theyll make sure theyll do a background book on him and find every little thing, because McConnell will chew him up and spit him out.

In conversations about 2014, Kentucky political operatives repeatedly noted the potency of McConnells research operation and its almost spectral presence.

Hes always put an extraordinary amount of time and effort to make sure youve got all the information available for a potential opponent, said one Kentucky Republican close to the Senator. Part of that is creating ongoing research files for people who might come after to you years years ahead of time.

And the research is not just the normal looking through old newspaper articles and public records. Its a veritable human intelligence operation that includes tapping sources on the ground and digging up unsearchable stuff, explained Republicans familiar with his campaigns.

McConnells motto is if somebody flicks a pebble at you, you hurl a boulder back and hes made good on it.

Edelen was mum on a Senate run. Adam cant stand politicians who get into office and immediately start thinking about the next one. And he wont be one of them, said his spokeswoman, Stephenie Steitzer.

Grimes had no comment. Parrett said he was focused on his job but didnt rule anything out, and Luallen almost completely closed the door on a run, saying she was better suited for a gubernatorial bid.

There is a history of McConnell campaigns becoming very negative and very critical, Luallen said coolly. And thats a factor people have to think about.

McConnell allies agreed. If youre sitting there thinking about running against Mitch McConnell: Remember Fargo, former McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper said, referring to the Oscar-winning movie. And remember the end, when that guy is putting that chopped-up persons leg in the big woodchipper machine? Mitch McConnell is the woodchipper.

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