Mitch McConnell at War
The tough and wily leader is entering the toughest primary challenge of his career.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell likes to say, “If someone flicks a pebble at you, you hurl a boulder back at him.” His political team is just as emphatic. Some Republicans in Kentucky who flirted with working for his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, were told by the McConnell allies that they would get the “death penalty.” Another frequent warning: “Mitch McConnell doesn’t take prisoners.”

McConnell’s team “shoots the wounded on the battlefield as a matter of course,” says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato. A former GOP leadership aide who has seen the McConnell operation up close sounds terrified. “They’re all killers,” he says, without a trace of humor in his voice. “These are not guys to be trifled with. They are burn it down, p*** on it, then blow it up kind of guys.”

And it’s not a secret. The New York Times reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) was blacklisting a GOP ad firm, Jamestown Associates, for working with the Senate Conservative Fund (SCF), which is helping Bevin. Privately, McConnell aides acknowledge that it was McConnell who had Jamestown blacklisted for cutting ads that the SCF ran in Kentucky. McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, spoke to the Times, offering a dark analogy: “The SCF has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican Party like a drunk who tears up every bar they walk into. The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell’s bar, and he doesn’t throw you out, he locks the door.” Holmes, who is now heading McConnell’s campaign committee, later confirmed on Twitter that his quote alluded to a scene in A Bronx Tale in which a group of mafiosos savagely beat members of a biker gang who vandalized their bar — a scene as violent as any in the movies.

In blacklisting Jamestown, McConnell has opened up a new front in what has become an open war between McConnell and Holmes, on the one side, and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint and SCF executive director Matt Hoskins on the other.

Freshly re-provisioned from millions of dollars in donations that flooded in during the government-shutdown episode, Hoskins, a former DeMint aide, invaded enemy territory October 18 when he decided to back Bevin.

For McConnell, this is the direst threat of his career, as he’s now in a two-front war, with Bevin on one flank and Democratic challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes on the other. The wily incumbent is upping the ante, casting the fight as a battle for the future of the Republican party.

“This is an election where you are choosing sides,” says former McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper, now a lobbyist at Fierce, Isakowitz, and Blalock. “We’re finding out where people are. This is not just about the May 2014 primary. This is about the future of the party. Do we want to get to 51 — and, we hope, 55 over time? Or do we want to have 25–30 guys in the Senate who we think are going to be reliably conservative no matter what but who are never able to achieve anything other than drafting a strongly worded white paper?”

Hard-charging Hoskins is undaunted. “Mitch McConnell is doing this because he can’t defend his record and running dirty campaigns is all he knows how to do,” he says. McConnell has often exercised power in D.C. by pressuring major donors to withhold donations from a given lawmaker or organization. His allies on K Street are often the people who deliver this message and “enforce” it. SCF is receiving most of its donations from a large number of individuals who send in small-dollar amounts. McConnell can’t easily pressure these grassroots donors — they aren’t professional politicians and they’re far from D.C.