McConnell, Other Republicans Lead Primary Challengers From the Right

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By Patrick O’Connor and Janet Hook

GOP Incumbents Fend Off Revolt Ahead of Tuesday’s Vote

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, shown campaigning in Kentucky over the weekend, has highlighted his position as a party leader.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, shown campaigning in Kentucky over the weekend, has highlighted his position as a party leader.

A much-anticipated conservative revolt against incumbent Republicans never fully materialized here in Kentucky, allowing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to build a commanding position ahead of Tuesday’s GOP primary by fully embracing his role as a Washington power broker.

A McConnell victory over Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, which is considered likely, would send a resounding signal to Republicans elsewhere that incumbency and deal-making are no longer the millstones many conservatives claimed them to be as the tea party gained strength in recent years.

Tuesday’s primary here in Kentucky, along with others in Georgia, Idaho and Oregon, represents the most important moment on the 2014 calendar to date in the tug of war between GOP leaders and conservative activists. From the beginning, Mr. McConnell has highlighted his conservative stances, but never at the expense of his main message—that his perch as a party leader gives Kentucky more clout in Congress.

Last year, a stampede of conservatives declared their intent to challenge dozens of Republicans in Congress. But at this point, many of those campaigns have fizzled, as incumbents responded in various ways. In Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson has trumpeted the federal funds he has steered to his state. Other Republicans have tried to insulate themselves from primary threats by aligning with tea-party activists and casting votes with the most conservative members of Congress.

Mr. McConnell, in his re-election campaign, has made gestures to accommodate the tea party, supporting a ban on federal earmarks, a once-prized political tool, and forging a close alliance with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of the activists who regard Mr. McConnell skeptically.

But a prominent element of the McConnell campaign has been his focus on his own role in Washington and his position in a GOP leadership that the tea party sees as insufficiently conservative. In campaign stops over the weekend, Mr. McConnell, 72 years old, spoke frequently about how his stature allows him to deliver power and prestige to Kentucky.

Of his extended tenure, Mr. McConnell told one crowd: “People look at that I guess one of two ways: They either conclude you’ve been there too long, or you’re indispensable. And obviously, I’m hoping for the latter.”

At the same time, Mr. McConnell played down ideological divisions within the Republican Party, which needs six seats this year to take control of the Senate. The likely victories of most Republican incumbents this year over conservative challengers, he said, are due to GOP voters’ wanting to avoid past missteps, in which primaries produced candidates with limited appeal in the general election.

“It is important for us to nominate people who can actually win in November, and we’ve had some challenges in that regard over the last two cycles,” Mr. McConnell said after a campaign stop in Bowling Green. “I’m confident that’s not going to happen this year.”

Many activists echo that sentiment. Ralph Reed, an evangelical who is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the lesson of the GOP primaries so far reflects not so much the triumph of the Republican establishment over insurgents as the emerging political pragmatism of the party’s most conservative activists.

The results of these primaries, writ large, demonstrate that the ideological fervor of both tea-party and social conservative voters in 2010 is now heavily leavened with a strong dose of pragmatism and a desire to win,” Mr. Reed said. Given that the landscape of competitive Senate races will favor Democrats in the next two election cycles, “Most people in the grass roots feel this is likely our last shot to actually see conservative control of the U.S. Senate,” Mr. Reed said.

In Georgia, GOP leaders and their allies in the business community appear on track for their goal of preventing either Rep. Paul Broun or Rep. Phil Gingrey, among the most conservative candidates in the race, from advancing to a runoff to fill the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. That race has become a contest among three Republicans who are viewed as candidates with broader appeal—businessman David Perdue, who leads most polls, followed by former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Rep. Jack Kingston.

Ben Sasse, the “establishment” Republican candidate in Nebraska, edged out the more conservative candidates for the Republican primary in Nebraska. WSJ’s Reid Epstein explains its significance.

Still, whatever the outcome on Tuesday—and in other primaries later on the calendar—the conservative groups fueling many of these primary challengers take credit for pushing incumbent Republicans further to the right and note that many of the new members of Congress will be more conservative as a result of their efforts.

“There’s no question the candidates are more conservative,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a small-government, free-market advocacy group backing anti-incumbent challengers in Idaho, Mississippi and Texas.

In the Republican primary for a House seat in Idaho, the Club for Growth last year mounted a public challenge to Mr. Simpson and has spent $500,000 on behalf of lawyer Bryan Smith.

But Mr. Smith has been heavily outspent by the incumbent and his own backers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Defending Main Street, a super PAC to promote Republicans more closely aligned with the GOP leadership. In a sign that Mr. Smith’s campaign was losing steam, the Club cut its spending there last week in order to spend money in other races, according to a media buyer active in Idaho.

In Kentucky, the latest poll sponsored by local media outlets shows Mr. McConnell leading Mr. Bevin 55% to 35%, even as the survey showed Kentucky voters overall hold a dim view of Mr. McConnell. Fifty-six percent of the roughly 1,700 registered voters who were interviewed disapproved of the job Mr. McConnell is doing in the Senate, while 49% had an unfavorable opinion of him, versus the 29% who viewed him favorably.

Early general-election polls show Mr. McConnell in a statistical dead heat with the expected Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Mr. McConnell has benefited from his huge campaign war chest, with a large chunk of his money devoted to negative ads about Mr. Bevin, who is 46. “Mitch McConnell has spent millions of dollars on false character assassinations of Matt Bevin, yet we are still gaining new supporters every day,” said Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand.

After such a testy primary, Mr. McConnell’s first challenge will be winning over Bevin supporters. Only 39% of Bevin supporters said they would support Mr. McConnell in November, according to the results of the latest Bluegrass Poll, while one-in-four said they planned to cross party lines to vote for Ms. Grimes.

Brion Butterbaugh, a FedEx contractor from Franklin, Ky., who held Bevin signs outside a recent McConnell event, said he probably would vote for the senator if Mr. McConnell wins on Tuesday. But he wouldn’t do so enthusiastically.

“He would be the lesser of two evils, but I’m getting tired of always having to support the lesser of two evils,” Mr. Butterbaugh said.

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