Matt Bevin was the candidate, but Matt Hoskins, the Jim DeMint protege and the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, was his most important supporter – and one McConnell allies took pains to highlight and isolate throughout the race.
Hoskins' group spent roughly $1 million on Bevin, his most important outside source of financial support. With Bevin losing by 25 points, he's likely to face questions about whether that was a wise use of resources.
“The reality is that SCF and the people advising Matt Bevin to run against McConnell let personal animosity color their political judgment. Say what you will about McConnell but he's easily the most ruthlessly effective campaigner in Republican politics and sending any rookie into that buzzsaw is masochistic,” a senior GOP official said.
Throughout the campaign, McConnell's campaign worked diligently to say it was at war not with the Tea Party, but with Hoskins alone. Remember McConnell's conference call with Karl Rove? The controversy was over whether McConnell said he wanted to punch the Tea Party “in the nose,” or SCF.
Hoskins, meanwhile, holds an extremely low view of McConnell, stemming from his work in the Senate as a DeMint aide.
The thing that drives McConnell's critics crazy is that his voting record is fairly pristine, from a conservative standpoint, while he sometimes works his will behind the scenes in the opposite direction. One instance of this became suddenly public in February when McConnell toiled to convince moderate Republicans to help pass a clean debt ceiling. Only upon failing did he vote for it himself.
Before getting into the race, Hoskins polled the SCF's membership about whether to get in, and they overwhelmingly said yes.
Hoskins, although normally talkative, didn't respond to requests for comment today. His friends rejected the notion that the decision to get in the race was because of any personal “grudge” he has against McConnell, saying his criticisms of the Kentucky Republican are ideological and principled.
Still, it's notable that the Club For Growth, another big player in Republican primaries, didn't get in the race. McConnell had a high lifetime score on the group's scorecard, making it difficult to sell their would-be participation. But, more importantly, they didn't see an exceptional candidate in Bevin.
It's a bit difficult to say with certainty, after the McConnell political machine is done with him, whether Bevin is a good, bad, or average candidate.
He was prevented from hiring good staff since many top candidates were scared off from working for him. Before he could even introduce himself to voters, McConnell's campaign was hard at work defining him as “Bailout Bevin.”
Even though McConnell is known for his ability to maim his opponents for life, it's something else to watch it happen in real time. In discussions with key players in the field, it's clear that national Tea Party leaders didn't anticipate how forcefully the Establishment would push back, not just in this race, but across the cycle. There are bubbling discussions about a greater focus on candidate quality in years to come.
Bevin's backers say there a couple silver linings in an otherwise disastrous primary challenge.
First, the Republican party has moved in a more conservative direction over the last several election cycles, something undeniably attributable to the Tea Party.
“Milton Friedman said it's not enough to elect the right people to do the right thing, you have to make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing,” one conservative strategist said Tuesday.
Second, McConnell's reputation among conservatives took some hits throughout the campaign given his aggressive tactics.
In his official statement issued just after polls closed, Hoskins said “We congratulate Senator McConnell on his victory and urge Republicans in Kentucky to come together to defeat Alison Lundergan Grimes. We thank Matt Bevin for standing up for conservative principles and giving voters a choice in this race. Now it's time for Republicans to unite for victory in November.”