FRANKFORT, Ky. — Matt Bevin stood beneath Kentucky's Capitol dome and tore into all the things wrong with Congress, starting with the state's U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. "How," Bevin demanded, "can we begin to remedy what ails us as a nation … if we continue to send the very same tired ideas and tired people to Washington over and over and over again?"
Soon enough Alison Lundergan Grimes chimed in. "D.C. has come to stand for the dysfunctional capital," she told a pair of reporters after touring a distribution warehouse in northern Kentucky, "and after 28 years in Washington, Mitch McConnell is the institution and the reason that it's broken down."
Bevin is a tea party Republican, Grimes the daughter of a prominent Democratic family. Together, they pose the most serious threat ever faced by the Senate Republican leader: challenges from the right and left that promise to make Kentucky's Senate race next year one of the nastiest and most expensive in the country. Also, quite likely, one of the closest.
All of the elements swirling in the 2014 midterm election have come together in this red-blue state, which leans Republican in federal races but still hews to its Democratic tradition in state politics. There is the tea party insurgency against the GOP establishment, the five-term incumbent who embodies a Congress voters deeply detest; and the Democratic challenger yoked to a president who has grown increasingly unpopular after the stumbling rollout of his signature healthcare plan.
As he seeks reelection, McConnell finds himself threading a narrow space between too much and not enough. "He's a genuine, bona fide conservative, but doesn't believe that compromise is a bad word," said Jesse Benton, manager of McConnell's campaign. "He doesn't put ideological purity over the pragmatic need to govern. Somebody needs to run the show up there."
A Senate leadership job is an inherently difficult one, forcing a constant balance between home-state interests and the political and policy imperatives of a national party. It may be why three of the last four leaders have faced stiff reelection fights. South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle lost, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid won — thanks to a fatally flawed opponent — and Tennessee Republican Bill Frist retired, keeping a term-limit pledge.
At 71, McConnell has been a force in Kentucky politics for decades. A shrewd strategist with a history of running scalding campaigns, he may be more responsible than anyone else for the state's conversion from a Democratic stronghold to a place where two parties thrive. But his phlegmatic nature and highhanded manner — at one Louisville news conference, McConnell told reporters he would only answer questions about the federal healthcare law — don't engender great personal affection. "More respected than loved" is a common refrain in political circles.
His clout has helped Kentucky enormously in Washington, and his legislative acumen has made McConnell a vital negotiating partner at crucial times: to avoid a financial collapse in the Great Recession, to raise the debt ceiling, to keep the country from going over a fiscal cliff and, most recently, to end the partial government shutdown and prevent a default on the nation's debt.
That, however, has done him little good in some unyielding quarters of the GOP, which has fueled the primary challenge from Bevin, 46, a wealthy businessman and political newcomer.
"He's not a real conservative," said Bobby Alexander, a retired postal worker and tea party leader from the central part of the state, who came to the state Capitol rotunda last month to cheer Bevin's formal entry into the race. "Mitch McConnell says one thing in Kentucky and does another in Washington."
Along with backing from local tea partyers, Bevin has won support from a smattering of conservative groups, including one that funded Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's upstart campaign. But arguably the most important tea party endorsement has eluded him. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who defeated McConnell's hand-picked candidate in Kentucky's 2010 primary, has since swung behind his erstwhile foe and backed his reelection. (Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, is Paul's nephew.) Many believe McConnell will return the favor if, as is widely expected, Paul runs for president in 2016.
Bevin is a decided underdog in the May primary, but McConnell has hardly ignored him. He has run TV and radio spots questioning his rival's personal finances and business dealings and challenging his party loyalty, even though the ads are draining funds and the strategy risks alienating Bevin voters he may need in the fall.
As for Grimes, she faces only token Democratic opposition and has focused entirely on McConnell and the general election. At age 35, serving her first term as Kentucky secretary of state, she presents a sharp personal contrast with McConnell and has no voting record for him to attack.
Still, Grimes, the daughter of a former state Democratic Party chairman, is clearly learning as she goes. Her haphazard campaign launch last summer was widely ridiculed. Evading an unhappy Kentucky press corps, she gave her first sit-down interview to Elle magazine, offering, amid the platitudes, an assessment of her wardrobe: "Classic, strong and always prepared for a little bit of the unexpected."
She has gotten better. After the warehouse tour Grimes crisply responded to reporters' questions, batting away McConnell's efforts to tie her to President Obama and Majority Leader Reid — "a very old play from a worn-out playbook" — and minimizing the benefit of having a Kentuckian in his role in Washington, saying voters "want someone paying attention to them 100% of the time, putting them first."
But no amount of personal improvement can change the fundamentals of Kentucky politics. The state is socially conservative, tax-averse and strongly anti-Obama. (He lost both times he ran, last year by 22 percentage points.) Even with the coal industry in steep decline, Kentucky remains the country's third-largest producer, making many hostile to Democratic efforts to fight climate change.
And while Kentucky has enjoyed a rare successful introduction of the healthcare law, thanks to a supportive Democrat in the governor's office, McConnell remains unstinting in his criticism. "This thing is a disaster for the country," he said at his Louisville news conference.
For all their differences, Grimes and McConnell are effectively waging the flip side of the same campaign, each lumping the other with the least popular aspects of their party. McConnell portrays Grimes as Obama's puppet. Grimes blames McConnell for a gridlocked Congress, and Bevin criticizes him for not doing more to fight Democrats.
After a bitter campaign, the winner may be the one Kentuckians simply find most tolerable.