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Political newcomer says he will challenge Sen. McConnell in 2014 election

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FILE: Dec. 18, 2012: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. (AP)

A Kentucky political newcomer announced Wednesday he plans to challenge Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary, marking the first time the veteran senator has faced a competitive primary opponent.

Louisville businessman Matt Bevin declared at a news conference the time has come for Kentucky voters to oust McConnell, and offered himself as the replacement.

Bevin criticized McConnell for being a part of "the politics of failure" for nearly three decades while describing himself as a man of the people, having grown up in a farmhouse with wood stoves, a garden for vegetables, and land that provided assorted animals for meat, milk and eggs.

"After 30 years in Washington, it is clear that Mitch McConnell has lost touch with our state, its people and our values," he said in a speech at the state Capitol during the first of a series of campaign stops he has planned across Kentucky.

McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton dismissed Bevin's criticism.

"Mitch McConnell is Kentucky's greatest advocate, and he fights his heart out for our commonwealth every day," Benton said. "Mitch is working hard to bring all Kentuckians — Republicans, tea partiers, independents and conservative Democrats — together to stand against the liberal Obama agenda in Washington."

Bevin acknowledged the difficulty of defeating the well-funded McConnell, who has already raised more than $15 million for his re-election.

"It's an uphill journey," he said. "Let no one kid you."

Leaders of the conservative Club for Growth said Wednesday that they met with Bevin months ago and haven't ruled out getting involved in the race.

"We'd like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Sen. McConnell on the issues," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. "The Club's PAC will watch Kentucky's Senate race — as it would with any race — over the coming months to determine if our involvement is warranted."

In the past, the Club for Growth has targeted incumbent Republicans who it viewed as insufficiently conservative. The organization called Wednesday for McConnell to sign a letter promising not to fund federal health care reforms. McConnell has been one of the chief critics of the reforms.

Bevin's entry into the race marks the first time that McConnell has faced a competitive primary challenger.

McConnell wasted no time blasting Bevin in a TV ad that begins airing Wednesday.

The ad attacks Bevin for accepting a $200,000 taxpayer bailout for companies he owns in Connecticut, and alleges that he didn't pay taxes on the companies, a claim that Bevin denies. The ad refers to Bevin as "Bailout Bevin, not a Kentucky conservative."

Bevin began airing a TV spot of his own Wednesday morning, telling Kentucky voters they deserve better than the five-term incumbent. The ad started airing hours before Bevin formally announced his candidacy.

"Mitch McConnell has had a long career in politics," Bevin says in the ad. "But after 30 years in Washington, is his leadership really the best we can do?"

An announcer then charges that McConnell has voted for higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.

Bevin, a Louisville investment adviser, is taking on a tough foe in McConnell, who is known for his no-holds-barred campaign style.

The early exchange of TV ads shows not only that McConnell is taking nothing for granted with the primary challenger, but that Bevin, too, can dish out tough political rhetoric.

Bevin also has picked up support from within tea party ranks, which McConnell had tried to shore up long ago through an alliance with fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul has been touting McConnell as a friend to the tea party and its conservative principles. Pragmatists within the movement don't want to jeopardize a friendly GOP seat in the face of a strong Democratic challenge from Kentucky's 34-year-old Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Knocking off McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending, while Democrats try to hold onto 21.

Besides his alliance with Paul, McConnell has picked up support from other national tea party leaders and brought in Benton, a longtime aide to former Texas Congressman and past presidential candidate Ron Paul, to serve as his campaign manager. The moves have virtually ensured that no would-be challenger can get the kind of infusion of cash from national tea party channels that allowed Paul to win here in 2010.

Bevin declined Wednesday to discuss his fundraising or to say how much of his own money he plans to invest in the Senate race.

The Associated Press contributed to this report