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Senate GOP leader battles conservative challenge

Thursday - 8/29/2013, 1:45pm  ET

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2013 file photo Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks at the 50th annual Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville, Ky. McConnell is not far enough to the right for some conservatives. The five-term Kentucky lawmaker, who typically aces conservative scorecards on his legislative record, faces not only a primary challenger _ businessman Matt Bevin _ but a growing lineup of outside conservative groups who tag McConnell as too willing to acquiesce to President Barack Obama on government spending, too eager to bail out Wall Street and too ready to grant amnesty to the 11 million immigrants living here illegally. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is not far enough to the right for some conservatives.

The five-term Kentucky lawmaker, who typically aces conservative scorecards on his legislative record, faces not only a primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, but also a growing lineup of outside conservative groups. Critics say McConnell is too willing to acquiesce to President Barack Obama on government spending, too eager to bail out Wall Street and too ready to grant amnesty to the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Never mind that McConnell opposed the Senate immigration bill with a path to citizenship this past June, voted against the president's nominees for the Pentagon, CIA and several federal courts and never misses an opportunity to skewer Obama's signature health care law. McConnell has even sidled up to the tea party's fair-haired senator, fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul.

"He is part of what I would call the French Republicans; he surrenders a lot," said Larry Forgy, a Lexington, Ky., Republican who unsuccessfully ran for governor twice in the 1990s.

McConnell was hardly waving the white flag recently at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's traditional ham-and-eggs breakfast for 1,500-plus, drawing loud applause from the crowd when he offered his vision for the health care law.

"What we need to do it pull it out root and branch," the senator said, arguing that it was driving up the cost of insurance premiums and forcing companies to turn full-time employees into part-timers because of the expense of health care coverage.

With Paul at his side, the taciturn McConnell told reporters, "This is one of the few issues, seems to me, that we've got 100 percent Republican unity."

Not good enough, argue Bevin and various conservative groups.

"There is nobody conservative who is fighting for Obamacare, and here we have a man who repeatedly parades around this dolly of Obamacare papers ... lots of flowery language about yanking this out root and branch and yet absolutely unwilling to lead on this issue to actually do something about it. He is a leader in name only, and the people who are true conservatives are fed up with it," Bevin said in an interview.

Despite the criticism, one leading conservative, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, endorsed McConnell on Thursday, noting the senator's high scores from longstanding conservative organizations and casting the incumbent as a bulwark against the Democratic president.

"It isn't easy fighting on the front lines against Barack Obama and his allies in Congress every day, but someone has to do it," Huckabee said in a statement. "There is nobody who has done it more effectively, who asks for less recognition for his work, than Mitch McConnell."

The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has signaled that it's open to backing Bevin, is spending nearly $50,000 on a statewide radio commercial demanding that McConnell deny money for the health care law even if it means shutting down the government, a strategy that has divided Republicans. The Madison Project, a conservative group that has endorsed Bevin, also is running a radio ad challenging McConnell's conservative credentials.

"After 28 years of Mitch McConnell claiming to be a conservative but then supporting big government policies, isn't it time conservatives dump Mitch McConnell?" the ad says.

The Club for Growth, which holds considerable sway with some Republicans, is noticeably on the sidelines, keeping tabs on the race before backing a GOP candidate.

The 71-year-old McConnell is not only bidding for another six years in Washington; he's determined to ensure that Republicans grab control of the Senate and make him majority leader, and chief nemesis, for the last two years of Obama's second term. Already rated a perfect 100 percent with the American Conservative Union in 2012, McConnell made all the right moves -- legislatively, politically, rhetorically -- in 2013.

He also amassed a Louisville slugger of campaign money, $9 million and counting, to swing at all rivals, including pesky outside groups, his GOP challenger in the May primary and likely Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Still, the conservative hits keep coming, even with an internal McConnell campaign poll showing the incumbent holding a healthy double-digit edge and Bevin unable to move the numbers despite his own ads targeting McConnell.

"One of the things we're trying to point out to the voters in Kentucky is Mitch McConnell has been telling you one thing, and he has been acting and voting in a way that is diametrically opposite to that in Washington, D.C.," said Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project and son of the group's founder, former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun. "We fully understand it's something of an uphill battle, but we're going to go ahead and make the case."

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