The walls are closing in on Mitch McConnell.
As recently as two weeks ago, the embattled Senate Minority Leader and four-term Kentucky senator appeared to be on an unexpected glide path to a fifth term.
His Democratic opponent, 34-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, was slow out of the gate in her uphill battle against the supremely funded McConnell, and his biggest fear—a primary challenge from the same Tea Party that elected Sen. Rand Paul—appeared to be dissipating.
But heading into this weekend’s Fancy Farm picnic—Kentucky’s biggest political festival, where all candidates are invited to speak—McConnell is wearing a bull’s eye the size of Churchill Downs, and the notoriously savvy senator could well be facing the end of his political career.
A Democratic poll taken in the state in late July and released Thursday morning revealed that Grimes, who is still in the early stages of building a campaign, has moved into a lead over McConnell.
The poll, which was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, and commissioned by two national liberal organizations, showed Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 44 percent.
Although the poll shows the senator within the margin of error, it still adds to the growing list of headaches McConnell is facing, especially after his worst nightmare was realized in the form of Matt Bevin, a Tea Party primary opponent who thus far appears to have the chops to make McConnell’s life uncomfortable in the lead-up to next May’s primary.
While McConnell’s campaign dismissed the poll results as a concoction of Grimes’s allies, an internal poll released by the Grimes campaign Thursday night also showed the senator trailing the newcomer by 2 percentage points, 44 percent to 42 percent.
Perhaps more troubling for McConnell, the internal poll conducted by longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman shows the senator’s unfavorable standing at a startling 58 percent.
“He’s had a tough week,” said Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the political-science department at the University of Kentucky. “He probably is sensing that this is the fight of his political life.”
While unnerving to McConnell’s team, the challenge from Bevin and from the Tea Party was not wholly unexpected, given the strength of the libertarian-minded group in the Bluegrass State, which shocked the political establishment when it elected Paul in 2010.
But the senator’s anemic numbers in a head-to-head matchup against Grimes, who is still largely unknown to most of the commonwealth despite her 2011 statewide win as secretary of state, should be setting off alarms at McConnell headquarters.
Still, the senator’s team, at least publicly, is working overtime to show no signs of worry.
Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager and Paul’s 2010 campaign manager, said the polls showing up more than a year before next year’s election have “zero credibility and should be ignored out of hand.”
“George Soros and the Obama allies are up to their same old tricks,” Benton said in an emailed statement. “They have concocted another fictitious poll that has no basis in reality, held it for 10 days, and released it at a perfect time in the news cycle to help their upstart liberal candidate.”
While Team Grimes was elated to see the numbers on Thursday, a senior adviser acknowledged that the polls reveal more about McConnell’s weaknesses than his opponents’ strengths, as voters are still getting to know both Grimes and Bevin.
Bevin’s team, having weathered an immediate and fierce assault from McConnell’s campaign when he entered the race on July 23, pointed to the poll results as one of the reasons Bevin decided to challenge McConnell from his right.
“He’s so vulnerable,” said Sarah Durand, a Bevin spokeswoman. “There is one Republican who could actually lose to a Democrat in the general, and that’s Mitch McConnell.”
McConnell is, however, a survivor. In his long career, the senator has made a habit of not just burying candidates who dared to take him on, but making sure they stayed buried.
But this time, the line of would-be political assassins targeting McConnell from both flanks seems to get longer by the day.
While Tea Party officials in Kentucky have thrown in their lot with Bevin, Washington-based Tea Party groups have launched their own campaigns against McConnell.
Groups like For America are following the lead of Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, peeling paint off McConnell with Republican voters in a risky effort to shame the senator into backing a Senate Tea Party effort to defund President Obama’s health-care law.
Ads from Tea Party–affiliated groups are beginning to pop up in Kentucky, warning McConnell that he better get in line with an initiative Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah are pushing that would oppose any bills that include funding for the Affordable Care Act. Or else.
While the push by Cruz and Lee appears contained to a group of about a dozen Republican senators, the heat from Tea Party groups in a state where Obamacare is a dirty word could well drive McConnell’s numbers even lower.
“Sen. McConnell, conservatives don’t need a chicken when it comes to Obamacare,” warned an ad released this week by For America. “Leaders lead. But if you fund it, you own it.”
Political observers said Thursday they will be watching McConnell’s appearance at Fancy Farm this weekend for a change in strategy. The slash-and-burn strategies McConnell has used to disappear his opponents in the past might not work in 2014, analysts said.
“All of his political skills and talents are going to be put on the line,” Yanarella said. “He takes no prisoners. That’s been his basic approach [in campaigns past].”
While McConnell might be tempted to try to project what Yanarella called a “kindler and gentler” candidate, that could be an impossible metamorphosis for a candidate with the street-fighter blood that runs through McConnell’s veins.
“To try to imagine a kinder, gentler Mitch in a situation where he’s got to worry about a two-front battle, I just can’t fathom what that reinvention of Mitch would look like,” Yanarella said. “He’s really in a bind. Instead of seeing a kinder and gentler Mitch, we might see a bitter and more vicious Mitch.”
Bevin’s team will be watching at Fancy Farm this weekend for any signs of a new McConnell, but Durand said the senator doesn’t have the skills to pull off that kind of pivot.
“It’s attack, intimidate, character assassination,” Durand said. “He doesn’t do anything other than that. He’s never run on his record.”