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.
“In Kentucky, you need two signatures and 500 bucks and you’re on the ballot,” said former Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), who lost to Paul. “That’s 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 won’t be difficult.
“He’s 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 McConnell’s 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 party’s, but no one is making much noise about the race.
“I’m 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 he’s never faced the machine,” Cauley said. “If they’ve got any sense at all, they’ll make sure they’ll 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 McConnell’s research operation and its almost spectral presence.
“He’s always put an extraordinary amount of time and effort to make sure you’ve 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. It’s a veritable human intelligence operation that includes tapping sources on the ground and digging up “unsearchable stuff,” explained Republicans familiar with his campaigns.
McConnell’s motto is “if somebody flicks a pebble at you, you hurl a boulder back” — and he’s made good on it.
Edelen was mum on a Senate run. “Adam can’t stand politicians who get into office and immediately start thinking about the next one. And he won’t be one of them,” said his spokeswoman, Stephenie Steitzer.
Grimes had no comment. Parrett said he was focused on his job but didn’t 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 that’s a factor people have to think about.”
McConnell allies agreed. “If you’re 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 person’s leg in the big woodchipper machine? Mitch McConnell is the woodchipper.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.