WASHINGTON — With just hours before he finds himself with a Republican primary challenger, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell spent Tuesday evening courting tea party and conservative groups during a private gathering of activists and lawmakers inside the Capitol.
“What you guys have provided is the energy, the enthusiasm and the arguments to push back on this incredible assault,” McConnell said, according to a source in the room. “No issue illustrates that better than Obamacare.”
The closed door “Tea Party Legislative Forum” — which was also attended by a host of conservative lawmakers including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee — could not have come at a better time for McConnell.
For months, the Kentucky Republican has been wooing tea party activists and working hard to fend off a potential primary challenge from the right in 2014. But on Wednesday, first-time candidate Matt Bevin is set to announce a primary campaign to take on McConnell.
Bevin is expected to argue that he’s the true candidate for tea partiers.
But on Tuesday, the tea partiers who organized the meeting with lawmakers and activists had nothing but praise for McConnell, whose office facilitated the meeting with the group TeaParty.net.
“We love Sen. McConnell,” TeaParty.net strategist Niger Innis said flatly in an interview.
Another leader of that group, Scottie Nell Hughes, said she’s supportive of McConnell, though she admitted that’s partly for practical reasons.
“The other side of the tea party is we do need to win,” Hughes said, referencing tea party losses in 2010 due to weak candidates.
“And sure, we don’t necessarily agree with all the votes he’s made in the past,” Hughes said of McConnell. “But he’s still done a lot better than probably a unknown candidate would do for us.”
Since it became clear Bevin would challenge the minority leader, Democrats have gleefully promoted the news, knowing a bruising primary could benefit their candidate, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s campaign has sought to show that the businessman’s history indicates he is no true tea partier.
Among potential problems that could hurt Bevin’s tea party cred: his business took $200,000 in state government money last year after his Connecticut factory, which wasn’t insured, burned down.
“Matthew Griswold Bevin is not a Kentucky Conservative, he is merely an East Coast con man,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a recent release.
Sarah Durand, a spokeswoman for Bevin’s campaign, slammed McConnell in a Tuesday release: “Before Kentucky small business owner Matt Bevin has even announced his candidacy, Mitch McConnell is slinging mud to avoid discussing his own liberal voting record.”
As for Tuesday evening’s event, an invitation to the meeting at the Capitol Hill Club said it was hosted by conservative groups TeaParty.net, Americans for Tax Reform, Tea Party Express, 60 Plus, Republican Jewish Coalition, National Taxpayers Union, Free Congress and Let Freedom Ring.
Others who attended the Capitol Hill event included RNC chairman Reince Priebus, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann.
Arizona Sen. John McCain — hardly a tea partier — happened to walk by the room inside the Capitol when the tea party event was being held. Organizers invited him inside and he took a number of questions.
“The dominant issue for tonight’s discussion was defunding Obamacare,” Innis said. “That we have the moral responsibility to defund Obamacare.”