Progress Kentucky, Democratic Super PAC, Targets Mitch McConnell For Defeat In 2014

Posted: 01/29/2013 12:37 pm EST




WASHINGTON — It’s just January 2013, but in the race to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after nearly three decades in the Senate, one small super PAC is already exploring all options.

Progress Kentucky, launched in December, was born out of discussions among Democratic activist Shawn Reilly, who now heads the super PAC, and his friends as they debated how to defeat McConnell in 2014.

“Nobody else is doing it. So let’s start a super PAC and make it a grassroots effort,” Reilly said, recalling the reasoning process. “Make it of the people of Kentucky and for the people of Kentucky.”

Reilly has a progressive background, having worked for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq in its 2007 summer campaign as well as on a number of statewide and local races in Kentucky. Before starting Progress Kentucky, he was a member of the executive committee of the state Democratic Party.

His group’s first order of business is to find candidates to take on McConnell from both the Democratic Party in the general election and the Republican Party in a primary challenge. As Politico reported on Monday, Progress Kentucky is in contact with Tea Party groups across the Bluegrass State to try to convince a credible conservative to run against McConnell in the primary. The group has already sent out a petition to 22 candidates — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to see if anyone is willing to challenge the state’s senior senator.

By actively seeking out candidates, Reilly said, his super PAC is letting them know that they’ll have support if they run. “Hey, if you want to run, you’re going to have some support on the ground here to help you,” he said.

It may seem strange that a liberal Democratic organization would be working with Tea Party supporters, but Reilly said there are important areas in which the two groups agree.

“They are just as concerned with [McConnell’s] corruption and crony capitalism — some of the things that he’s done over the years in terms of earmarks,” Reilly said. “They are just as much concerned about those things as people on the left are. They’re looking for candidates that can deliver that type of message, and we’re looking at potentially supporting those kind of candidates who can deliver that good-government, anti-corruption type of message.”

In fact, this would not be the first time that a Democratic group involved itself in a Republican primary campaign with the intent of knocking off the candidate with the better chance of winning the general election.

Last year, Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, ran ads attacking Missouri businessman John Brunner in the GOP Senate primary because they thought he could have seriously challenged the vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in the general election. At the same time, McCaskill’s campaign ran ads promoting then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), the seemingly weakest candidate in the Republican field. Akin went on to win the three-way Republican primary and then fulfill Democratic hopes and dreams by laying waste to his own campaign with bizarre comments about rape.

In the 2012 Indiana GOP Senate primary, the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century released numerous memos and online videos attacking then-Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) for not paying taxes in the Hoosier State and for residing primarily in Washington, D.C. These efforts, while not central to Lugar’s primary loss to Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, helped drive negative news against Lugar during the early stages of the race. Mourdock went on to mimic Akin and lose the general election after spouting inappropriate comments about rape.

But McConnell is not Akin or Mourdock. To pull off something like this, Progress Kentucky is going to need money. So far, it is relying largely on grassroots donations and not on the kind of large contributors that most major super PACs use to fill their coffers. The group has a fundraising target of $100,000 by the end of February and hopes to raise up to $2 million to fund television, field and other voter targeting activities.

The group has also been in contact with labor unions in Kentucky and helped to roll out a report by the Public Campaign Action Fund, a campaign finance reform group, tying McConnell’s use of the filibuster to particular campaign donors. Those connections could help Progress Kentucky as it takes on the incumbent Republican senator.

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In Kentucky’s Senate race, ties to Mitch McConnell could be helpful or harmful

By Amy Gardner

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010



MONTICELLO, KY. — When Senate candidate Rand Paul told a lunchtime crowd at Shearer’s Buffet that "we have to do things differently" in Washington and "bring ’em home and send some different Republicans," it wasn’t hard to make the jump from this rural area near the Tennessee border to the top Republican in the state, if not the country: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Paul, a "tea party" activist and the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former presidential candidate, is not the first person this year to blame leaders in Washington for the nation’s ills. What’s remarkable about this primary campaign is that McConnell isn’t even on the ballot. Paul is running against Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

McConnell, 68, is widely credited with building the Kentucky Republican Party — the GOP headquarters in Frankfort is even named for him. Just a few months ago, it seemed inconceivable that he couldn’t push Grayson, his handpicked candidate, to victory Tuesday. Now, not only is Grayson in trouble — he trails in the polls by double digits — but his association with McConnell isn’t helping.

"They go, and they stay too long, they lose their way, and as they do they become corrupted by the system," Paul, 47, an eye surgeon making his first run for office, told a group of about 30 supporters over breakfast at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken in the tiny town of Albany. "The longer you’re there, the more you succumb to the power, the more you think you are somehow different or more important than the rest."

McConnell was unavailable for an interview, and his spokesman declined to comment for this article. But Grayson rejected the idea that the race has become a referendum on McConnell or Grayson’s connection to him. "He’s actually got more D.C. ties than me," Grayson said of Paul.

He’s also sure that McConnell is an asset, despite his five terms in office. They’re both so sure, in fact, that the senator, after months of behind-the-scenes support, jumped in last week with a public endorsement.

(Six Republican candidates are on the ballot, but polls show the race is between Paul and Grayson. Similarly, five Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination the same day, but surveys find that the contest is primarily between Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.)

Grayson has numerous connections to McConnell. McConnell urged the younger Republican, a lawyer from the Cincinnati suburbs, to run even before outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning (R) decided last year to retire. (Bunning is supporting Paul.) They share a pollster and a media consultant, and Grayson’s father, a bank president, is a longtime McConnell supporter. The view among some who back Paul is that Grayson would be little more than a yes man for McConnell.

"We’re sick of McConnell," said Winna Ramsey, 50, a radiology technician from Monticello who came to hear Paul speak at Shearer’s. "Rand Paul is not a career politician. He’s got the people’s interests in mind, not the special interests. He’s a breath of fresh air from what I can see."

Grayson, 38, bristles at such characterizations and is exasperated that his record of fiscal and social conservatism is going unnoticed. Grayson opposed the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program legislation in 2008 that bailed out U.S. financial institutions; as secretary of state he slashed spending in his office; he served on the board of a pregnancy crisis center that counsels against abortion. He also notes that much of Paul’s momentum is the result of out-of-state donations from his father’s supporters.

Still, Grayson struggles to connect with potential backers. At the headquarters of a hardwood flooring company in London, Ky., one of the owners lamented the state of the economy, and Grayson responded: "Oh, it’s terrible." Local circuit court clerk Roger L. Schott, who was escorting Grayson, tried to prod the candidate. "What are we going to do to change that, Trey?" Afterward, the businessman, Jim Begley, said Paul seemed to have more answers.

Paul’s campaign stops are feisty affairs at which supporters hoot and cheer as he weaves his personal biography and a list of grievances with Washington into a populist call to arms. The founder of the antitax organization Kentucky Taxpayers United, Paul rails against what he describes as Washington’s unsustainable spending, crippling debt, career politicians with no term limits, a "socialist" health-care law and a failure to close the nation’s borders to illegal immigrants.

Paul has become a national hero of the tea party movement by opposing new taxes and deficit spending and supporting such ideas as the abolition of the Department of Education and amending the Constitution so that children born in the United States to illegal immigrants would no longer become citizens automatically. A victory for him on Tuesday would further energize a movement already pumped up by the defeat of Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah’s Republican primary last weekend.

"Greece is defaulting right now on their debt," he told the breakfast group. "One of the next things you’ll see is chaos on the streets. You’ll see violence. . . . And it can happen even in America if we’re not careful."

But Paul’s libertarian streak could lead to breaks with conservatives on some issues. He opposed the war in Iraq. He has spoken in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. A pro-Grayson advocacy group, trying to portray Paul as out of step with mainstream Republicans, is running a television ad featuring a chiming cuckoo clock.

McConnell’s advisers say the senator remains popular among Republican voters, and Paul typically doesn’t mention him by name. But his crowds are all too glad to make the connection. And the candidate got as close as ever to a direct critique of McConnell during a debate on Monday, when he and Grayson were asked whether they would vote for McConnell to keep his post as Republican leader. While Grayson answered that he would vote "proudly" for McConnell, Paul said, "I’d have to know who the opponent is and make a decision at that time."