Super PAC: Progressive/tea party alliance aiming to topple McConnell

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is becoming increasingly concerned about his 2014 re-election chances in Kentucky, according to a progressive super PAC that says it is partnering with unnamed tea party groups to paint McConnell as a corrupt insider and knock him out of his longtime Senate seat in a Republican primary.

A recent McConnell campaign fundraising email accused liberals of “attempting to infiltrate conservative” groups in Kentucky. Another McConnell campaign email accused the liberal organization MoveOn.org of supporting a “phony tea party” in an attempt to beat the senior senator. Though MoveOn disputed the McConnell campaign’s charges, the progressive super PAC Progress Kentucky is openly waging the kind of attack that McConnell seems worried about.

“Mitch McConnell has recently contributed through [his wife] Elaine Chao’s family $80,000 to the Kentucky GOP,” Shawn Reilly, executive director of the progressive super PAC Progress Kentucky, told The Daily Caller. “It looks to me like he’s trying to buy the Kentucky Republican Party in order to try to avoid a primary.”

“He also set up his campaign office a year earlier than he ever has, and he placed it in the same office where his 1984 campaign — his first successful Senate race — was housed,” Reilly added. “I hear from people that he’s pretty superstitious.”

Progress Kentucky, which filed as a Kentucky-based super PAC on Dec. 13, says it is making a concerted push to align itself with tea party groups in order to field and support a viable Republican primary challenger for McConnell. Reilly said that his group is already in productive communication with tea party leaders across the state.

Matt Bevin, a 46-year old investment management adviser who hails from New Hampshire and owns a bell-making business in Connecticut, has expressed interest in challenging McConnell in a Republican primary. A prominent philanthropist and Louisville resident since the late 1990s, insiders believe Bevin could help the tea party portray a more educated and moderate image after more than three years of attacks targeting it as a “racist” political movement.

Progress Kentucky supports Bevin’s potential candidacy, and Reilly expressed excitement at the prospect of “a young guy with a huge company” challenging McConnell.

“Tea party, Beer party. Doesn’t matter — as long as he’s challenging Mitch McConnell, we’re not gonna hate,” Progress Kentucky declared on its Facebook page, in reference to a news item on Bevin.

Progress Kentucky’s seeming pro-tea party push began just one month after Democrat Claire McCaskill defeated Republican challenger Todd Akin in the 2012 Missouri Senate race. Akin’s victory in the Missouri Republican primary owed largely to the efforts of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil, who designed television ads promoting Akin over his Republican primary opponents. Cecil viewed Akin as the most vulnerable general-election opponent for McCaskill. Cecil’s strategy worked, and was praised this week in a New York Times profile.

Progress Kentucky has lent heavy public support for actress Ashley Judd, who is reportedly weighing a Democratic challenge to McConnell, but despite this, Reilly said that Progress Kentucky is not affiliated with national Democratic interests. The group, which discloses its donors to the Federal Elections Commission, mainly opposes McConnell for his perceived corruption, according to Reilly.

Biotechnology firm Amgen received a massive gift from the U.S. Senate in last month’s “fiscal cliff” deal, when lawmakers inserted a paragraph into the law delaying Medicare price constraints on one of Amgen’s kidney dialysis medications. That paragraph eliminating price constraints is projected to make Medicare spend up to $500 million on the drug over the next two years.

Progress Kentucky alleges that Amgen has 74 lobbying and financial ties to McConnell. Reilly also charges that the Kentucky Republican Party received Amgen PAC money around the same time McConnell was structuring the $500 million “handout” to the company.

“I worked with some tea party groups back in 2007. I heard recently that they were concerned about Amgen, and we were concerned about McConnell’s relationship with Amgen, so I reached out to them and started talking,” Reilly said.

“It’s different down here. Friends I went to high school with, college with, have ended up on the conservative or Republican side. But we’re still able to find some common ground,” Reilly said. “It was funny to me because people were freaking out when they first found out” that Progress Kentucky was in talks to work with the tea party.

Nevertheless, some tea party leaders are keeping Progress Kentucky at arm’s length, aware of how this strange-bedfellows arrangement might look to conservatives.

“I sat down and had lunch with [Reilly] one day,” Louisville Tea Party President Sarah Duran told TheDC. “But I don’t think we’re going to [work with Progress Kentucky]. Our membership would probably have some issues with that.”

“I think there are definitely some people out there who would make better senators or worse senators than McConnell,” Duran added.

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