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Mitch McConnell Has A Fight (Or Two) On His Hands

MAYFIELD, Ky. – That Mitch McConnell really does have a reelection fight on his hands was apparent to me even before I got to Fancy Farm, the glorious western Kentucky combo of county fair and old-fashioned political hoedown. I could tell it as soon as I stepped inside the community center in Calvert City that was hosting the local GOP warm-up event on Friday night, the evening prior. If the room had been any more low energy, they might’ve had to bring in one of those wind turbines that people like to scorn in coal country, just to keep the electrons flowing. A very elderly man with a shirt in the design of the Stars-and-Stripes hunched over a small boom-box blaring some patriotic fife-and-drums and a sound system that kept screeching feedback. A few dozen fellow seniors inched down the buffet table. There was a good explanation for the low mood: the beloved county party chairman was seriously ailing at the hospital in Nashville, two hours away.

But there was also a distinct lack of excitement about the man of the hour, who was on the schedule to appear but had left late from Washington. Misti Drew, a GOP county commissioner, gave a more candid answer than I expected when I sought her appraisal of McConnell’s reelection prospects: “Alison is going to give us a good challenge, and our challenge is to connect with the voters in a way that’s more charismatic.”

A minute later came a reminder that Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, is not the only person McConnell needs to worry about. Lingering in the room was David Adams, a conservative activist who ran the stunning primary campaign of Rand Paul in 2010, and who, while not yet formally involved in this year’s race, predicted that McConnell would meet the same fate from his own Tea Party challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, even if McConnell had done his best to co-opt Paul and his followers, in part by hiring as his campaign manager Jesse Benton, who replaced Adams for Paul’s general election push. “Mitch McConnell needs to retire,” Adams said, matter-of-factly. “And he needs to do it before the primary so he doesn’t get embarrassed.”

Mitch McConnell is not going to retire, because he is this close to achieving his dream of becoming Majority Leader of the United States Senate. But he is facing a serious challenge back in his home state, enough so for some prognosticators to now judge his race a toss-up. This challenge is being described in many accounts as a left-right vise, with Grimes on one side and Bevin on the other. Which technically it is. But the challenge is so formidable because both the Democrats and the Tea Party cohort in Kentucky are hitting McConnell on the same weak spot: scorning him as a little-loved Washington creature (29 years and counting) who is out only for himself. What struck me over the weekend was how relentlessly, almost giddily, this line of attack was being delivered from both sides, with a bravado that suggested little fear of McConnell’s vaunted political artillery, and quite a lot of confidence in his vulnerability.

“The thing about Mitch McConnell is that he’s become the ultimate paper tiger,” said Adams, who’s been keeping himself busy between campaigns filing lawsuits against the state over Obamacare and corporate-welfare incentives. “He runs his campaign through intimidation and this fear that he’s this all powerful Wizard of Oz, but when you go up against him and hit him he bleeds, and I think he bleeds a lot.”

Over at the Democratic warm-up event, in a jam-packed convention room at a lakeside resort, state officials and candidates took turns taking shots at McConnell in tones striking for their populist fervor—for Northeasterners who’d heard all about the decline of the Democratic Party in the South and Appalachia, it’s bracing to be reminded that many of the Democrats who still remain in those parts retain more of the party’s old FDR fire than many of their coastal counterparts (it’s worth remembering that Kentucky retains a strong labor presence—unlike Michigan and Indiana, it is not yet “right-to-work”). State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach charged, “The only thing our senior senator has cared about is the almighty dollar” in the form of “personal enrichment and campaign finance.” State auditor Adam Edelen, a likely candidate for governor, said McConnell had “build his entire career to advance his own political power,” and, after noting that McConnell’s sway had done nothing for the 1,100 workers at the about-to-close nuclear plant in Paducah, declared: “He is a giant, but he is a giant for the bad guys.”

Then came Grimes, the secretary of state and daughter of a well-known former Democratic state legislator and party chairman, Jerry Lundergan. Only 34, Grimes can come across as scripted and unsteady at first, especially when she’s talking about her party’s agenda (she’s a ways from getting her answers on Obamacare down pat, for one thing.) But she gains ease and fluency as her stump speech turns to McConnell, as if her scorn for him is quite deep in her bones. One might expect it to be jarring to watch a young woman with a very proper bearing going into attack mode, but Grimes has somehow managed to make it seem as if her line of attack is rooted in her propriety: As she tells it, McConnell is an affront to the good people of Kentucky, is somehow beneath them. Her favorite and most effective line is to charge McConnell with governing “out of spite,” drawing the word out in a long, genteel Kentucky drawl that only underscores the regretful disapproval of McConnell. While she herself doesn’t “agree on everything with the president”—Obama was never mentioned by name at the event—that doesn’t mean that McConnell has to be “so petty and so small” in his opposition to him. She evokes the “giants” that Kentucky once sent to the Senate and laments that McConnell falls so short of them. It is progressivism mint-julep style, with plenty of Kentucky chauvinism to sweeten the mix.

Grimes hits McConnell for some actual votes—against the Violence Against Women Act renewal, against raising the minimum wage—but above all casts him as generally just gumming up the works: “There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington and Senator McConnell is right at the middle of it.” After so many years of seeing Republicans effectively tar Barack Obama with the Washington mess they gleefully helped create, it is quite clarifying to see the dysfunction charge being brought against the man who, quite proudly, has done more to build the logjam than anyone.

That man is, for the moment, showing little outward sign of concern. The next morning, I watched McConnell give his usual pitch at a pre-Fancy Farm breakfast, as unruffled and lugubrious as ever. He mentioned neither Grimes or Bevin by name, instead framing his opposition as Obama and his distant coal-hating minions: Harry Reid, “the San Francisco, east Coast liberals, who run the Democratic Party,” George Soros, etc. “This is going to be the biggest race in the country,” he declared with evident satisfaction, as if that will be so only because of his own stature, and not because of its potential closeness.

McConnell got hearty applause at the breakfast, in a high school cafeteria full of party stalwarts. But when I got out to Fancy Farm, the first people you saw lining the road outside the event were the Bevin acolytes with their homemade signs. I asked one, Stephen Howard, if he was disappointed in Rand Paul for supporting McConnell and whether this would undermine Bevin with Rand’s fans in the state. Howard shrugged the question away: “A lot of people see it for what it is,” he said. “He’s in the Senate now, and he’s running for president. He’s not saying anything bad against Mitch.” (I heard the same thing from another Bevin backer, a leader of the state’s strong industrial-hemp-activism network named Katie Moyer. “There’s a certain etiquette for running for Senate,” she said. “Deep down Rand is probably rooting for Matt.”)

Bevin’s supporters are taking heart in McConnell’s harsh attacks on their man (alleging misdeeds at the clock company owned by Bevin’s family). “For him to be putting out as many attack ads as he is shows he is scared, for him to be trashing him right off the bat,” said Howard. I asked Howard what it was, exactly, that he found McConnell insufficiently conservative on—hadn’t he been holding the line against Obama pretty much across the board? Howard rattled off McConnell’s support for the TARP bailouts, the Department of Homeland Security, and his reluctance so far to go along with a threat by a dozen of his colleagues to shut down the government if Obamacare is not defunded. As for all the intransigence against Obama, Howard saw that as mere “partisan politics,” not deeply held conservative principle. “He’s doing a lot of things to fool people into thinking that he’s conservative,” Howard said.

I heard an analogous critique at Fancy Farm from the other side of the aisle, from United Steelworker member Mark Belt, one of the 1,100 who is about to lose his job at the Paducah nuclear plant. McConnell hadn’t done as much as he could have for workers at the plant, he said, because he was so busy engaged in his gamesmanship with Reid and Obama. “He’s always opposed to everything, so we’re hung in the middle,” Belt said.

Again and again, one came up against it: a complete lack of good will or benefit of the doubt for the man who had been representing the state for almost three decades. When McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao, the arch-conservative secretary of labor under George W. Bush, was introduced, I was genuinely startled by the wave of booing from the Democratic side of the pavilion. Fancy Farm is known for its no-holds-barred atmosphere—so reminiscent of an earlier era in political pugilism that one half expects to see Tom Watson (not the golfer but the populist) stepping out of the shadows—but still, booing the wife? Though McConnell gave as good as he got, opening his speech with a shot at Grimes’ father, Lundergan—with Grimes sitting just a few feet behind him holding her husband’s hand -- before going in again at “San Francisco” and “Martha’s Vineyard” and “nanny state liberals.”

Then it came her turn, and the McConnell crowd (mostly college kids bused in for the occasion) raised up signs with her face on one side and Obama’s on the other, and she repeated the tough lines from the night before, except this time with the target sitting right behind her, a tight smile on his thin lips. “If doctors told Senator McConnell he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it” she said, a line that has been quoted as much as it was meant to be. Finished, Grimes swirled about and, to everyone’s surprise including McConnell’s, bent to shake the hand of he-who-would-not-pass-a-kidney-stone. McConnell was too startled to react, but Chao jumped up to punch Grimes, er, cordially return the handshake.

Sadly, I had to leave at this point to catch the last flight out of Nashville. I missed the speech of the afternoon, Bevin’s strikingly deft and assured broadside against McConnell, who had also skedaddled by this point, along with his bused-in supporters. “Where’s Mitch? The people of Kentucky have been wondering about that for quite a while now,” mused Bevin. Then: “There’s nothing in his 30 year history of voting that he’s proud enough to actually run on.” And: “I don’t intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell. I don’t intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I intend to run straight over the top.”

That’s going to be a steep climb, as my colleague Nate Cohn has noted. McConnell has oodles of campaign dough, and he has the persuasive argument, which he makes often, that he’s in a far better position to block the loathed Obama than a rookie back-bencher would be. Both Bevin supporters and Democrats noted that their toughest task would be getting voters over the hump of their reluctance to jettison a such a senior person representing their state.

But we do, at least, have a race on our hands—two of them. Mitch McConnell may well become Majority Leader in 18 months. But to get there, he's going to be spending a lot of time focusing on the fight in his own, surprisingly rutted backyard.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jerry Lundergan was a former state senator. In fact, he was a former state representative and Democratic Party chairman.