Washington – What does a bell factory in East Hampton that was struck by lightning last year have to do with a hot Senate race in Kentucky or the federal government shutdown?
Plenty it seems.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is facing one of the toughest challenges in his long political career from a tea party favorite named Matt Bevin, whose family has manufactured bells in East Hampton since the early 1800s.
McConnell is accusing Bevin, a first-time political candidate who says the five-term senator is not conservative enough, of asking for a bailout of the family company from the administration of Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. McConnell campaign ads say “Bailout Bevin” took a $200,000 grant from the Connecticut state government even as the Bevin Brothers Bell Factory had tax liens.
“Bailout Bevin, not a Kentucky conservative,” the ads intone.
Samaia M. Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said Bevin received a $100,000 grant through the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development’s Small Business Express Program after the factory was destroyed by a fire caused by lightening in 2012. Another $100,000 grant went to a separate company housed in the same building destroyed by the fire, Hernandez said.
The grant money was used to help relocate the factory to another site in the town.
“Connecticut has a proud history as the home of the Bevin Bell factory, and we are putting our economic development tools to work to assist Bevin Brothers … in its effort to rebuild here in Connecticut,” said Malloy when he announced the grants in June 2012.
Sarah Durand, spokeswoman for the Bevin campaign, said the money “is not a bailout, it’s an economic investment grant … done at the direction of the citizens of Connecticut who kept urging the state to do something.”
Durand also said Bevin cleared up the tax liens after he went to run the factory in 2011 because his uncle, who had been running the company, had severe health problems. The company had at least four dozen federal, state and local tax liens, but an investigation by the Louisville Courier-Journal determined that they all occurred before Bevin’s brief tenure as president and treasurer of the company in 2011.
Despite his time in the state, Durand says Bevin was never a Connecticut resident, but has lived in Kentucky for 15 or 16 years and is a resident of that state.
The appearance of Bevin on the scene is thought to have forced McConnell to lurch to the right — and may have contributed to the hesitancy the Republican senator displayed in negotiating with Democrats to end a 16-day government shutdown.
But McConnell ultimately sat down with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and forged an agreement that ended the shutdown and temporarily raised the nation’s debt ceiling.
McConnell’s willingness to negotiate with Democrats infuriated tea party members, including former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“Rest well tonight,” Palin wrote on her Facebook after Congress approved the shutdown agreement in late night votes. “For soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let’s start with Kentucky … from sea to shining sea we will not give up. We’ve only just begun to fight.”
For now, McConnell has a healthy lead in polls over Bevin, who is largely self-funding his campaign.
But McConnell has a stiff challenge from a Democrat, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has raised more money recently than the most powerful GOP senator, taking in $2.5 million in contributions since July.
The Cook Political Report calls the McConnell-Grimes race a tossup.