National conservative groups are closely watching Kentucky in anticipation that Louisville businessman Matt Bevin will run against Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in next year's GOP primary.
A Bevin news release says the investor will be making an announcement in Frankfort on Wednesday as part of a 3-day event that includes eight campaign stops across the state.
Last Friday, several Tea Party activists with direct knowledge told WFPL Bevin is entering the Republican primary for McConnell's seat. The movement has remained ferociously critical of McConnell over the years and just this week the United Kentucky Tea Party issued a blistering letter slamming the GOP leader's voting record as not conservative enough.
Now sources with national right-leaning advocacy groups tell WFPL they are eager to get involved in a Republican primary battle in the Bluegrass, and are preparing to support Bevin over McConnell.
"Over the next few days we plan to endorse very soon and come in very hard to prosecute the case against Mitch McConnell," says a source with a conservative PAC. "We are all in. Whatever it takes, we're going to help raise money for [Bevin] and we're going to particularly work on ground game."
Others are eager to defeat McConnell in a primary as well, but are waiting to see if Bevin can build a campaign structure and galvanize rank-and-file Tea Party voters at the grassroots level.
Besides the $15.4 million war chest, McConnell still has support from a Kentucky Republican who is more associated with the Tea Party than any other lawmaker in Washington—Senator Rand Paul.
Since being elected, Paul has forged a convenient and telling alliance with McConnell that the junior senator isn't going to unravel.
"I'm not giving [Bevin] encouragement or discouragement. It's a free country and anybody who wants to run can," says Paul. "I have endorsed Senator McConnell though."
If that was a lukewarm nod to activists who helped Paul defeat McConnell's protege Trey Grayson three years ago, Paul went further when asked about the role national Tea Party organizations should play next year.
"There are a lot of races you can choose from and a lot of different places you can throw your effort, and your money and your time. And I think there are open seats are better places for the Tea Party to work," says Paul. "I think Senator McConnell will win both the primary and general election."
Team Mitch has known for months that Bevin was meeting with Tea Partiers in the state and courting the senator's national critics within the party. And despite public efforts to befriend the more conservative wing, McConnell's re-election apparatus has been preparing for what some argue was an inevitable insurgency.
By all indications the McConnell campaign is prepared to unload a vicious opposition research package to define Bevin early.
"You will see over the course of his next couple of weeks a portrait of somebody who presents himself as one thing everywhere he goes and oftentimes is the exact opposite," says a senior McConnell aide. "He's gone from various places in his professional career to represent himself as one thing when in actuality he leaves behind things that are extremely detrimental to people who have done business with him."
The McConnell campaign gave a preview of those punches when news broke last week that a decision was forthcoming, calling Bevin an "East Coast con man."
Bevin backers are prepared to return fire, however. Asked about the initial reaction, a Bevin supporter referred to "Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr." as a "K Street crook" who was born in Alabama.
But national conservative groups who have met Bevin remain unsure if the investment executive can handle the retail side of the campaign trail. Those still on the fence, however, are issuing a warning to McConnell first and foremost.
"We're going to look to see if the grassroots get behind Bevin, but the other we're going to do is watch to see how McConnell conducts himself in the race," says a leader with a major conservative PAC. "If all he does is engage in smear tactics, if he's incapable of defending his own record and all he can do is smear and malign a very good, decent person. Look, McConnell is not entitled to this, and he should have more respect for the voters to engage in a debate."
McConnell remains the favorite, but Bevin's entry puts Team Mitch in a wedge to where the more they attack the newcomer the more it arouses interest from McConnell right-wing critics.