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Sen. Mitch McConnell fighting for his political life?

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – the top Republican in the Senate – faces a tea party challenge in the primary; then, if he survives, a promising young female Democrat in the general. This weekend, the Fancy Farm Picnic will test everyone. 

By Staff writer / August 2, 2013

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) and GOP leaders talk to reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, as Congress prepares to leave town for a five-week recess. Back home in Kentucky, Mr. McConnell faces a tea party primary challenge in the runup to the 2014 election.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

It’s only just begun, but the reelection battle of Mitch McConnell – the top Republican in the Senate – is already shaping up to be the marquee race of the 2014 midterms.  

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Start with the primary challenge Senator McConnell faces from Matt Bevin, a wealthy, tea-party-backed businessman, reportedly willing to spend his own money. If McConnell makes it past Mr. Bevin, he’s poised to face likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and member of a well-connected political family, in the general election.

Add to the mix McConnelll’s mediocre job approval ratings in the state – only 45 percent in the latest poll, by the Republican firm Wenzel Strategies.

McConnell’s biggest liability may well be his leadership role in Washington. The Republican minority leader hasn’t been able to keep near-civil war from breaking out within his party. If there’s a government shutdown this fall, Republicans could come in for heavy public blame. Even if President Obama is deeply unpopular in Kentucky, Congress is worse off.

Two new polls show a race between McConnell and Secretary Grimes within the margin error, and on Friday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race to tossup.

“A lot of it has to do with McConnell,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. “A lot has to do with frustration with Congress, and Democrats have done a pretty good job of blaming him for everything.”

McConnell’s biggest blow so far has been the primary challenge by Bevin. The five-term McConnell is an experienced politico – he’s the longest-serving US senator in Kentucky history – and he put together an experienced reelection team early, including recruiting Kentucky tea party Sen. Rand Paul's campaign manager. He’s been raising money ever since Election Day 2012, and by mid-July reportedly had $9.6 million in the bank.

But none of that scared off Bevin, a partner in a Louisville hedge fund who blames McConnell for compromising with Democrats. So before McConnell can focus solely on beating Grimes, he has to fend off Bevin, and avoid becoming the latest member of the Washington GOP establishment to fall to a tea party challenge.

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