CPAC2014: Mitch McConnell’s Challenger Does Six Interviews in Five Yards

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 7 2014 2:11 PM

CPAC2014: Mitch McConnell’s Challenger Does Six Interviews in Five Yards

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—There he was, Matt Bevin, miccing up for an interview with Tea Party News Network. The first-time candidate, the hope of the Senate Conservatives Fund and several Tea Party groups, was challenging Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary only two months away. TPNN was one of many conservative, online news organizations offering friendler-than-the-MSM interviews to candidates as they walked through CPAC.

The Bevin interview proceeded in a do-no-harm sort of way. What was a Tea Party candidate? What would stop, say, Barack Obama from pronouncing himself a Tea Party candidate? What did he think of Mitch McConnell's appearance at CPAC with a rifle?

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"It reminded me of Dukakis in the tank."

Only toward the end did Bevin get a curveball, a question about the investor letter (discovered by Politico) his firm sent out, praising TARP.

Bevin would only call it a Mitch McConnell trick. "He makes lies up, tries to whip things up and create distractions," he said. "Mitch McConnell was the loudest advocate for the bailout!"

The mic came off; Bevin's handler, a Florida Tea Party activist, nudged him over to me and to Florida blogger Javier Manjarres. The Shark Tank, Manjarres' blog, is another source for informative-but-not-hostile interviews with Republicans; it's not unusual to see Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio greet him with a handshake or hug of recognition.

"You've thrust yourself into a party fight between the conservative movement in the Senate and establishment Republicans," said Manjarres. "How do you feel about that, how the establishment is bringing its weight on you?"

"People talk a lot about how this is a battle for the heart of soul of the Republican Party," said Bevin. "But it's bigger than that. What's at stake is whether this is going to be a government by and for the people."

Manjarres asked a few more questions; I asked Bevin what the landslide win of John Cornyn meant for his own race, given that he was challenging another GOP leader who'd voted to raise the debt limit.

"What did you think about the effort that was mounted against Cornyn?" asked Bevin. I didn't think much of it, I admitted. "This is a very different race. That's an apple and an orange. I'm not running a nonexistent race. I've logged 35,000 miles around the state of Kentucky talking to thousands and thousands of people."

We talked for about seven minutes; I asked about how Bevin would respond to Russia's intervention in Crimea, were he in the Senate. "When you come from a position of waffling and equivocation and weakness, you don't curry respect from the world's leaders." But would he want missile defense restored in Eastern Europe? "So much of that is contingent what the people in these places where the bases would be built have to say about it. We can't tell people uniliterally that they have to put missile bases on their land."

Satisfied, thinking I'd asked something Bevin hadn't overprepared for, I watched Bevin rush to his scheduled video interview with the Washington Times.

"He's given 150 speeches," said Bevin of McConnell. "It's like the Wizard of Oz—this all-powerful leader, and not one lick of difference to Obamacare." 

The paper gave him only a few minutes; he wrapped; he walked headlong into three reporters for the Huffington Post, who started questioning him anew. What did he think of the McConnell-rifle photo op?

"It reminded me of Dukakis in the tank," he said.

The Huffington Post moved on, which allowed gay radio host Michelangelo Signorile to grab Bevin and start asking about the Kentucky Supreme Court's ruling against the state's gay marriage ban.* This was Bevin's only talk that stayed on a single topic for a length of time.

"I can't speak to what other people should do as a party or as individuals," he said, finally. "I'm just saying, the people of Kentucky are concerned about Obamacare, they're concerned about amnesty."

Bevin and his handler huddled for a second. Then they parted, and Bevin was approached for a new interview. He'd moved maybe six yards.

*Correction, March 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled Michelangelo Signorile's last name.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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