J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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. 

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.  

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.

He also doesn’t want to join the club of congressional leaders who fall from the heights of power to ignominy, à la Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004 and House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994. The man who has the job McConnell wants – majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada – almost went down in 2010, but was saved by the GOP’s nomination of gaffe-prone tea partyer Sharron Angle.

For now, McConnell faces a more complicated gauntlet than did Reid, who didn’t face a competitive primary. McConnell is leading Bevin 59 percent to 20 percent, according to an Aug. 1 Wenzel Strategies poll. But he is still fighting a two-front war – a position made extra-challenging, given his leadership role.

“What’s most irritating for [McConnell’s team] is he’s getting hit on both sides,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “How do you respond to one without giving the other one ammunition?”

This weekend will feature the first big test of the campaign: the annual picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., a traditional political event that can get rather wild with people in costume, shouting and throwing things. All three top Senate candidates will be there – as will C-Span. Bevin has never run for office before, so it could be a trial by fire. Grimes isn’t a novice, but the spotlight has never shone on her so bright.

McConnell is by far the most experienced on the stump, but he’s not the most scintillating. Part of the interest in the event will be to see the fresh faces that are trying to unseat him and how he responds.

“He has to walk a very fine line and choose his words wisely,” both at Fancy Farm and for the duration of the campaign, says Mr. O’Connell.

Perhaps the best news for McConnell so far is the endorsement of Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul (R). In fact, McConnell dodged a bullet there. When Senator Paul ran as a tea-party-backed upstart in 2010, McConnell backed the establishment favorite, Kentucky’s then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson. 

But now Paul, too, is sticking with the establishment in backing McConnell. If Bevin were to defeat McConnell in the primary, Grimes could have a good chance at winning the seat – and that could seriously damage Republicans’ chances of taking over the Senate.

Currently, Democrats control the Senate, 55 seats to 45 seats. Democrats are defending 20 seats, five more than the Republicans, and current projections show a real possibility of a tied Senate (with Vice President Joe Biden as tie-breaker) or a 51-to-49 Republican edge. Thus, the Republicans need to keep every seat they have.

“Paul's endorsement is very important, and may, in fact, impede Bevin’s ability to gain momentum,” says Ms. Duffy.

But even if McConnell beats Bevin in the primary, the margin will matter. If McConnell crushes him, he heads into the general with the wind at his back. If he just squeaks by, he looks damaged – and will have likely spent a lot of money just making it to the general. Then, it’s showtime for the largely untested Grimes. Democrats are eager for McConnell’s scalp, so watch the national money pour into that race. 

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