WASHINGTON—Mitch McConnell did not mince words last month with his prediction about the upcoming elections. “I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” said the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky.
But McConnell was not talking about crushing the Democrats this November. His target is a wing of conservatives within the Republican Party who are mounting challenges to the GOP’s Washington establishment.
With some lawmakers having been in Washington for as long as 40 years, what amounts to a permanent political class has been established. Meanwhile the nation’s debt has ballooned to $17 trillion and counting. But in primaries from May to August, six of the 12 Republican senators seeking reelection will face opponents from the right. In the tea party’s fifth year of existence some are pointing to these races to see whether the group can sustain a political machine that can do more than hold rallies.
McConnell’s promise, providing a peek at how the party’s old guard views the tea party movement, served as fighting words to these conservative candidates and the groups backing them. “What kind of leader wants to crush the very people that he expects like sheep to then get in line and follow along behind him?” asked Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman facing McConnell in Kentucky’s May 20 primary. “I am not a person who has ever been moved by bullies. I say bring it on.”
McConnell and his band of incumbents have been bringing it by unleashing mounds of advertising money from mammoth campaign war chests that could only be amassed by those who have been in power for decades. To overcome these fundraising roadblocks underdogs like Bevin are turning to outside groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America, Tea Party Patriots, and the Senate Conservatives Fund. These groups are paying for radio and television commercials and opening field offices in many primary states. The dispatched staffs are leading outreach efforts from phone banking to neighborhood walking and arming the challengers with the latest micro-targeting technology to identify like-minded primary voters to get out to the polls.
“This is something I think the establishment has never faced before,” said Drew Ryun, with the Madison Project, an organization backing conservatives in 14 races this year. “We have people I think for the first time really employing the right kind of tactics. And the conservative side has a lot of momentum. There are a lot of people who really want to see change in D.C.”
This is the third election cycle since the tea party’s creation. In 2010, tea party victories brought a wave of conservatives to Congress. A few more won election in 2012, most notably Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas. But these lawmakers have often butted heads with the Washington elite, and Ryun says “we need to send them reinforcements.”
The tea party’s frustration with Washington Republicans continues to grow due to recent rollbacks on hard-won fiscal victories. A new Republican-backed budget undid some of the automatic spending cuts established in last year’s sequestration deal. And the latest increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit did not contain any spending reductions. “I don’t think people realized how deeply entrenched the GOP establishment is in maintaining the status quo,” said Ryun. “Their ideology has become remaining in power and the money that comes from being in power.”
But developing the political machinery to win won’t work if the candidates out front are not viable. Part of the maturation process of the tea party has included taking more time to vet the candidates. Groups have learned from watching some tea party–backed candidates flounder on the campaign trail due to bad cases of foot-in-mouth disease and lose winnable races in such red states as Missouri and Indiana.
The crop of conservative challengers answering the call for this primary season includes some who have never before run for political office but who claim they possess the real-world experiences missing from the résumés for most of Washington’s career politicians. Some of these challengers are evangelical Christians who have suffered from personal and professional hardships that may steel them for future challenges. They include a lawyer, a pastor, and a businessman.
Chris McDaniel, challenging six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran from Mississippi, has attended the same Baptist church in Ellisville, Miss., for more than 30 years. His conservative roots, he says, came from his faith and his father. In 1999, McDaniel accompanied his father to pick up a new car. Heading home at night along a country road, a truck pulled in front of the car driven by McDaniel’s dad. McDaniel, driving behind his father, managed to avoid the collision by swerving his vehicle into a ditch. He jumped out of his car and rushed to his father. He tried everything he could to save him, but his father, 57, died right beside McDaniel.
In his late 20s at the time, McDaniel wrestled with the loss by studying C.S. Lewis’ writings on pain. McDaniel, now 41, slowly accepted how pain can lead to spiritual growth. He turned to serving others. For the last decade McDaniel has donated up to 500 turkeys each Christmas to needy families.
McDaniel, now a state senator who many predict has the best chance of pulling off a primary upset, said the pain of watching his father die “has prepared me for the fights ahead” and steeled him for whatever the political world throws at him. He says he is running in the June 3 primary because he thinks Christians should not abandon the political battlefield. “People of faith are struggling because they are being marginalized, but at some point we have to re-engage the system and that includes the government. We have offered so much in our country’s history.”
He says one of the first bills he will introduce if elected would establish term limits: “I don’t believe in political aristocracies.”
Det Bowers remembers being lifted up on his father’s shoulders to place campaign posters onto telephone polls in South Carolina’s low country for his uncle who was a state senator. As a young adult, Bowers campaigned for Democrats, serving on the state campaign team during the 1988 presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis.
In 1990 Bowers, then a successful lawyer, mulled over signing a multimillion-dollar contract to buy a chain of convenience stores. He sought the advice of a friend who was a pastor. That conversation led to Bowers becoming a Christian. He not only dropped the purchasing of the stores, he abandoned his law practice. Fifteen months after being converted, Bowers entered seminary. When people told him he was crazy, Bowers replied it was what God was calling him to do.
Last year he began another abrupt professional shift, resigning the pastorate he held for 13 years at Christ Church of the Carolinas in Columbia. He is tackling what he believes is another calling: taking on Sen. Lindsey Graham who has been a lawmaker on Capitol Hill since 1995. “Sacrifice is the most powerful pulpit in the world,” Bowers said when asked why he would attempt another change at 62 years old. Bowers is running because he believes those in Washington are “tearing the wings off the American eagle.”
He raised some eyebrows after raising more than $417,000 in just two months this year. That is far short of the $8 million Graham has amassed in his coffers over the years, but Bowers' haul is encouraging outside groups to get involved. Bowers hopes to force a runoff by preventing Graham from getting a majority of the votes in the June 10 primary that features a field of seven candidates.
In Kentucky, only two candidates are in the GOP primary—Bevin and McConnell. Bevin grew up in a home with no television and heated by two woodstoves. He paid his own way to Washington and Lee University by washing dishes and earning an ROTC scholarship. After four years as an Army officer with a mechanized infantry division, Bevin started a series of investment firms that led him to Louisville.
His interests extend beyond the Bluegrass State. He and his wife Glenna have nine children aged 4 to 15, including four children adopted from Ethiopia over the last two years.
For years Bevin has developed infrastructure projects for orphanages in India and Africa, including building a computer academy for girls at a mission shelter in Kedgaon, India. In 2003, Bevin traveled with his oldest daughter, Brittiney, for the dedication of the lab. Brittiney, 17 at the time, came home convinced she had been called by God to become a missionary. That summer she worked at an orphanage in Romania. Six weeks after returning home for her senior year of high school, Brittiney died in a car accident.
Her story of following her calling has inspired many in the community and beyond, including her own father. Bevin believes that too many career politicians become enveloped by the pomp of power at the expense of serving the will of the people. He long prayed for someone to step forward. During this time he said he became like Jonah. “It is always easy to hope for somebody else, and to wait for somebody else,” he said. “But sometimes we are that somebody.”
Bevin, who owns all or part of 10 companies, said Washington will not stop spending money it doesn’t have as long as its lawmakers have little experience with how to balance budgets and make payrolls in the private sector.
Bevin and other conservative upstarts trail in the polls. In 2010 the political establishment was caught off guard by the grassroots surge that saw upsets like the tea party–backed Mike Lee toppling Utah GOP incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett. But McConnell’s “crush them” remark suggests that veteran Republicans up for reelection this year are coming out of their corners ready to throw punches.
McConnell, who has represented Kentucky since 1985, is using some of the $18.2 million he has raised to pummel Bevin. Negative ads call Bevin a con man and a fraud. Bevin, who has raised less than $2 million so far, has seen his unfavorability ratings go up in the wake of the attacks. But he is not giving up.
He said this primary season is bigger than a tug of war within the Republican Party. He sees it as a battle for the heart and soul of the entire political process. “This collusion between big government and big labor and big business and big news comes at the expense of all those they are supposedly there to represent and report to and serve,” he said.
Even if he falls short of victory, Bevin hopes his candidacy inspires others the same way his daughter’s confident response to a call inspired him. Bevin wonders if one of those inspired will become in a generation the “next Abraham Lincoln when our nation critically needs it. Maybe that is the point. I don’t know.”
Bevin and Bowers and McDaniel are challenging a system where many of those entrenched within become more concerned about their own power and wealth than America’s power and wealth. But if one of the old guard goes down, the loss could send shock waves through the Washington establishment.
“Liberty is never safer,” says Sen. Cruz, “than when politicians are terrified.”