Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has beaten his tea party challenger Matt Bevin,according to the Associated Press. With 96.8 percent of the results in McConnell had 60 percent of the vote to Bevin's 35.7 percent.
McConnell was expected to win the Kentucky GOP Senate Primary, but this decisive victory blew the tea party out of the water, and McConnell gets to start the general election with the wind at his back, despite the serious challenge from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat half his age.
McConnell aimed to unite the party, even pausing his speech to ask the crowd to applaud his opponent saying Bevin "brought a lot of passion and tenacity to this race and he made me a stronger candidate."
"A tough race is behind us. It's time to unite," McConnell said. "Know your fight is my fight."
He quickly moved on to his general election fight saying, "Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama's candidate."
"I don't care what party you are in, it doesn't make any difference, I am asking you to join me in in this effort," he said to cheers.
Shortly after McConnell spoke, Grimes addressed her supporters and hit McConnell right back saying, "I won't answer to the president, no matter who he-or she-might be."
"The race is between you and me, that's the name that appears on the ballot," Grimes said.
It's always difficult to oust a leader, but this fight between McConnell and Bevin was supposed to be much tougher. McConnell's unfavorable ratings, Bevin's personal fortune, and tea party groups pouring money into the race to try and defeat their number one target, made this a much talked-about possibility, but in the end it never materialized. Why?
How Did Mitch McConnell Beat Back His Tea Party Challenger?
Obviously, Bevin did not start out even with McConnell so he needed to make up a lot of lost ground," political science professor at the University of Kentucky Stephen Voss told ABC News. "A really well-done campaign free of errors that started getting people talking may have been able to do it…but that's not the type of campaign we saw. Instead it was the type of campaign we usually see from an inexperienced politician."
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Several outside tea party groups, including the Madison Project, the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, McConnell's chief irritator, spent over $1 million to help boost Bevin. He also spent a serious amount of money, about $3.3 million, including $1 million of his own money. It really can't compare to how much McConnell has spent though. He's raised over $21 million and spent over $11 million to quell the challenge.
McConnell and his team took Bevin seriously, choosing not to ignore him, a strategy toppled incumbents have come to regret. And a series of serious campaign errors on Bevin's part, which he made worse with fumbling answers or excuses were expertly manipulated by McConnell's campaign.
Bevin made a series of critical errors during the primary including the fumbling around whether he supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2008 federal bailout of banks, after he had consistently whacked McConnell on the campaign trail for his vote. He also seemed to have clearly padded his resume by saying he went to MIT on his LinkedIn profile, when he actually just attended a short seminar there with no official ties to the school. The final nail in the coffin: attending a cockfighting rally and claiming, despite video showing clearly the reason for the rally, that it was a "states' rights" event.
Voss said these "series of controversies" and how Bevin "mishandled them," including the "multiple justifications" he gave showed what a "novice campaign" it was and "made him look less credible."
The McConnell campaign not only acknowledged the challenger early and made sure to attack often to crush him, they were successful in the branding of Bevin as "Bailout Bevin." They hammered him in radio and television ads, as well as online and in direct mail, for the back and forth on supporting TARP and whether a family bell business took "bailout" money to repair a Connecticut factory. Bevin didn't help, giving a series of fumbling and confusing responses, instead of sticking with one explanation and responding in a one-time rebuttal.
"They started hitting him fast and early," and Voss notes by the time the cockfighting controversy popped up in April Bevin was "already done."
"As good as McConnell's campaign may have been, they never could have seen (coming) Bevin blow a hole in his foot with the bank bailout controversy," Voss said.
Bevin was also a first-time candidate going up against a politician known for his ruthlessness. Voss noted that it is "hard to believe" Bevin didn't know his reputation, but "did he have a campaign that knew how to handle controversies" before McConnell could take advantage of every misstep? That answer seems like a clear no with Voss noting Bevin had "very little control of the message."
Bevin also at times took on the role as candidate whiner, complaining about the nasty campaigning, running ads where he or even one starring his children called McConnell a liar.
"Thin skin sometimes is seen in people who haven't seen the nastiness of a real campaign," Voss explained.
Another good move by McConnell: lining up the star power of Kentucky's junior senator early. Sen. Rand Paul endorsed McConnell last March, and at times may have only had some lukewarm support for McConnell, but he helped build credibility and support with the voters Bevin needs.
In recent days, Bevin has cast some cold water on whether McConnell can bring the party back together after such a nasty primary, but McConnell does have some experience. After Paul's 2010 divisive primary with Secretary of State Tray Grayson it was McConnell who helped mend fences, despite backing Grayson. Now Paul will have a chance to repay the favor.
McConnell's own knowledge and long relationship with the party base in Kentucky should also not be discounted, despite his unfavorable numbers. For many voters it's still not worth losing his leadership status in Congress according to Voss who says "states don't like to lose that clout…especially a poor state like this."
"Bevin started this race with the deck stacked against him, for him to pull this off it would have been a real coup," Voss said, but now McConnell is in the true race for his life against Grimes. It's a race that will put the nastiness of the primary look like two kids in a sand box.