WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s most powerful Republican, will get his first big 2014 electoral test Tuesday as he faces a tea party challenger who’s trying to mobilize anti-incumbent sentiment.
Kentucky’s Republican primary is the main attraction Tuesday, when six states will provide the biggest day of tests yet for the Republican establishment and the grass-roots tea party movement, which has roiled the party.
Two other states will be closely watched for clues about who’s winning the struggle. In Georgia, three incumbent congressmen are vying with two Washington outsiders for the party’s Senate nomination. In Idaho, veteran Rep. Mike Simpson is battling tea party favorite Bryan Smith.
Underscoring all of it is a strong anti-insider mood. And no one on the ballot Tuesday symbolizes insider Washington like McConnell, who’s seeking his sixth term in the Senate.
McConnell is being challenged in the primary by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. Even if Bevin loses _ and he’s far behind in a recent poll _ a strong showing by the challenger would signal that McConnell is in for big general-election trouble against likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
People are thinking that “If we hate Washington, if we hate Congress, if we hate what’s going on and you’re one of the most . . . powerful people in Congress, we must hate you more (than) anybody else,” said political analyst Charlie Cook.
Establishment candidates have rebounded this year so far. They’ve been ready for the tea party challenges. In many cases, insurgents have proved to be poor candidates or unable to mobilize the same passion that boosted the tea party when it became a political force in 2010.
Turnout in state after state is expected to be very low, meaning the nontraditional grass-roots voters the tea party attracts are more likely to stay home, said Matt Towery, the chief executive officer of Atlanta-based InsiderAdvantage, a political media and polling firm.
“We don’t expect the same degree of impassioned voting this year,” he said. People are somewhat better off economically, and voters have soured on the political system.
Here’s the outlook for Tuesday.
In 2010, tea party hero Rand Paul upset McConnell’s Senate candidate, Trey Grayson.
McConnell took notice. “I don’t think any other Republican candidate has prepared for this kind of primary better than him,” said Scott Jennings, a Louisville, Ky.-based Republican strategist who was a political adviser to President George W. Bush.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, as well as other conservative groups, is behind Bevin. McConnell has been able to counter with a “strong conservative record,” said Brad Shattuck, a Lexington, Ky.-based consultant. McConnell’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 90.16 (out of 100), a solid conservative showing.
Some Bevin miscues have also helped, notably the challenger’s appearance at a pro-cockfighting rally. Bevin said he thought it was a rally for states’ rights.
A recent NBC News-Marist poll found McConnell ahead among likely Republican voters, 57 to 25 percent. Still, tea party backers have surprised the experts before, and even if he wins, McConnell’s totals will be scrutinized for clues to voter sentiment.
Three candidates are thought to be in the running for two top spots in Georgia’s Republican Senate primary. If no one gets a majority of votes, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff July 22.
Polls find that top tier includes former Secretary of State Karen Handel, businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston _ and not Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun. Broun was once seen as the darling of the tea party movement, but the Tea Party Express is behind Handel.
Turnout is key. Towery expects a disproportionate number of over-50 voters to show up, and they tend to be more analytical and less angry at the government than tea party loyalists are.
Handel is a wild card, since she’s used social media extensively to boost her candidacy, and Perdue has positioned himself as the outsider candidate. A Handel-Perdue runoff would be seen as evidence that voters wanted little to do with Washington incumbents.
Simpson is another consummate Washington insider, the chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee and close to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The conservative Club for Growth Political Action Committee made Simpson an early target, endorsing Smith last July and branding Simpson’s record “atrocious.”
The club spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost Smith _ and then last month it apparently stopped, according to The Idaho Statesman, a McClatchy newspaper.
“We’re in a constant state of assessing and reassessing our races, moving resources in and out _ depends on the day or week,” said club spokesman Barney Keller.
Idaho tea party candidates are having a rough time, said Marty Peterson, a veteran Boise-based political activist who’s a member of The Idaho Statesman editorial board.
“They are saying, ‘We are the true Republicans,’ ” he said of the tea party, but people are well aware that Simpson has a strong conservative voting record. Simpson’s lifetime American Conservative Union record is 81.96, not in the league that tea party activists would like but well in the ballpark for a true conservative.
Oregon, Pennsylvania and Arkansas also will hold primaries Tuesday. Pennsylvania’s governor’s race is being closely watched, since Republican incumbent Tom Corbett is vulnerable. Democrat Tom Wolf has a comfortable lead over Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the battle for the party nomination to face him.