Tea Party Sets Its Sights on Mitch McConnell

Tea party vows to defeat McConnell, just as it did Lugar.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to members of the media on Jan. 14, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
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The tea party strategist who orchestrated the effort that toppled Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., in 2012, has set his sights on Kentucky, organizing hundreds of like-minded neighboring activists to infiltrate the Bluegrass State in the coming weeks in an attempt to upend Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

[READ: McConnell Embroiled in Tight Senate Race in Kentucky]

Greg Fettig, who helped found the Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate group that assisted upstart candidate Richard Mourdock during the last election cycle, has determined that McConnell GOP primary challenger Matt Bevin is the movement's best chance for a seismic upset this year.

"It is a perfect storm against McConnell," Fettig says. "We don't intend to just give him a good run for his money, we intend to beat him. [If] we beat McConnell, we can prove we can do back-to-back Senate races and we can take anybody out if we work together."

The plan -- dubbed "Unbridled Liberty" after the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner -- is to marshal tea party activists from six bordering states to descend upon Kentucky to door knock, phone bank and hold meetings and rallies encouraging McConnell's ouster.

As a result of McConnell's staggering financial superiority -- his cash advantage over Bevin is nearly 10-to-1 -- Fettig believes a sustained on-the-ground communication enterprise similar to what he employed in Indiana is the most effective strategy and puts a fine point on the David vs. Goliath frame he's trumpeting.

He's already received commitments from tea party leaders in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri, and estimates he'll have a ground army of approximately 1,000 ahead of the May primary.

Ed Bell, a Cincinnati-based tea party leader, is hopeful he can deliver at least 150 foot soldiers to help fan out in northern Kentucky. Bell has confidence in being able to produce the troops, in part, due to the lack of grass-root conservative enthusiasm for the re-election of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, or his tea party opponent.

"We're trying to be more pragmatic. If there was a stronger candidate running against John Boehner or John Kasich, we may look at that," says Bell. "Kentucky has a guy pretty much everybody's on board with. You've got to look at the opportunity. The whole concept of helping across the river appeals to me."

Settling on the McConnell-Bevin clash as the crown jewel wasn't automatic; it involved a process of elimination.

During 2013, Fettig made trips to South Carolina and Tennessee, two other states hosting 2014 Senate races with Republican incumbents undeserving of re-election in his eyes.

[ALSO: Tea Party Lays Groundwork for Republican Bloodbath]

What he found in both places was not encouraging, but for different reasons.

After a July jaunt to Columbia, S. C., he picked up on several signals that local tea party groups were struggling to lock arms to defeat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. In addition to the complexity of dealing with three challengers vying for the upper hand, organizers expressed hesitancy about a coordinated effort.

"Some wanted to work with their local GOP, others only through the tea party and still others, not at all," Fettig recalled. "They're just fiercely independent and won't unite."

In Tennessee, where Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is seeking a third term, the problem wasn't organization, it was the candidate, according to Fettig.

After surveying activists on the ground last spring, he determined that Joe Carr, a state representative mounting a bid against Alexander, "doesn't have the wherewithal" to pull off the upset.

"Many feel the battle in Kentucky is of more importance and urgent," Fettig said.

While the parallels between McConnell and Lugar are evident, they aren't seamless.

Most acutely, McConnell's political survival instinct is far more savvy and cutthroat than the feeble Lugar. Whereas the Indiana icon seemed almost oblivious about the storm manifesting around him, McConnell has built a presidential-style operation in anticipation of just that type of unforgiving assault.