Why McConnell is smart to nuke his primary opponent today

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Matt Bevin announced he would primary Sen. Mitch McConnell the other day, and was greeted unceremoniously with this ad.

Is this smart of McConnell? My guess is this question was the focus of an internal debate (hopefully, not recorded by anyone standing outside the door.)

One could argue that McConnell is now inadvertently helping raise the profile of Bevin — that he is turning him into a national figure (and raising his name ID within the state) — by doing the political equivalent of hitting a fly with a sledgehammer.

Sometimes it’s best to ignore your opponent. Sometimes attacking them only helps turn them into a “cause.”

On the other hand, McConnell is making his strategic decisions within the context of recent history, and that recent history says that incumbents who lose to upstarts tend to be incumbents who don’t take the race seriously at first.

McConnell wants to define Bevin before Bevin defines himself. And by bringing up Bevin’s bailouts, he is essentially saying this to the public: “Look, I’m not perfect. But neither is this guy.” He is muddying the waters. This is smart. Absent a clear contrast, why would anyone choose to “fire” their incumbent–especially an incumbent who is the Republican leader in the Senate (Liz Cheney faces a similar challenge against Enzi in Wyoming)?

The odds are Bevin won’t catch fire, but it’s smart to overestimate your opponent. And the problem is that the way this works is that your opponent either reaches a tipping point, or he doesn’t. So you either snuff out these challenges immediately — strangle the baby in the crib, so to speak — or risk seeing it grow up to be a monster who destroys you.

And the scary thing is that this change — this growth — seems to happen almost over night. You go from being Matt Bevin — a nobody Kentucky businessman — to Matt Bevin — the guy that Palin just tweeted about, the guy Levin just talked about, the guy Hannity just endorsed … You can stop that from happening, maybe. But once that happens, it’s probably too late.

So McConnell is erring on the side of caution here. And this makes sense. Bevin’s campaign is being run by a firm headed by Sen. Pat Toomey’s former campaign manager and his former spokesperson. Now, Toomey’s office hasn’t returned my email as of this writing, but my guess is he will stay out of the race. Having slayed his own Goliath, Toomey has turned into a sort of cautious politician. I don’t see him interfering here (after all, he has his own re-election to worry about without pissing off McConnell.) Besides, if Toomey’s own colleague, Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul is okay with McConnell, then why would Toomey insert himself into this race?

Regardless, this means that Bevin’s team are at least professionals who should be taken seriously. (At least, I thought that was the case until they sent me an email touting their first TV ad, but didn’t include a video or a link to the video. At the time of this writing, they have also not returned my email asking for a video.)

This may not be a fair fight. And if Mitch McConnell has his way, it won’t be.