LEBURN, Ky. -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives at the eastern Kentucky sports complex looking as though he's dressed for work in the Capitol: suit, tie, dress shoes. But McConnell is in danger of losing his job in Washington as he faces reelection this year, and he's come to Appalachia to sit next to a jeans-and-boots-clad Rand Paul and extoll the virtues of hemp, the common name for the kind of cannabis plant that doesn't make you high.
The five-term incumbent McConnell is arguably the no. 1 target for both Democrats and the restive conservative right in this year's midterm elections, facing tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in the May primary and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the fall.
He is the consummate deal-cutting Washington insider in an era of widespread disdain for the capital; he's deeply unpopular in his home state; and he has a dour demeanor that's made him the butt of jokes from the likes of President Obama and Stephen Colbert.
And he might just get reelected anyway.
Hemp is "not what, shall I say, what its related neighbor is," McConnell tells the crowd that's assembled to launch the "Appalachia Proud" initiative aimed at bringing agricultural jobs to a place where the once-prosperous coal industry has faltered.
This is McConnell bringing home the bacon in a post-earmark age. Hemp -- used in rope, paper and other industrial goods -- is a hearty plant capable of growing in the mine-ravaged land here, holding the promise of bringing money and jobs back to the region.
"I get to appoint the conferees, people who are appointed by House and Senate to work out differences between two bills," McConnell tells the crowd, carefully explaining how he used his role as leader to make sure the farm bill conference report granted permission from the federal government to start growing otherwise illegal hemp in the state. "I sat down with each Republican senator and told them about how important hemp was to Kentucky."
The hemp projects were initially the brainchild of the libertarian Paul, a tea party favorite, with whom McConnell has an uneasy alliance-- McConnell originally backed Paul's opponent in the 2010 Senate race. McConnell embraced Paul as he prepared to face a potentially tough tea party challenge in his 2014 reelection fight, securing Paul's endorsement early on, hiring Paul's campaign manager, and backing several of Paul's proposals in Congress.
And while Paul's praise for McConnell has sometimes seemed warmed over, it's accomplished a critical mission for McConnell in Kentucky: preventing Paul and his top organizer from working against him.
"I don’t think there’s any particular reason for conservatives to be upset about my performance," McConnell told NBC News, "and of course I'm pleased to have the support of my colleague Rand Paul who certainly has solid conservative credentials. So I think the primary voters can figure this out."
Matt Bevin is early for the tea party meet-and-greet in Grant County. About 15 people have showed up at a Toyota dealership to hear his pitch. A table off to the side is stacked with Bevin buttons, "Ditch Mitch" bumper stickers, a FreedomWorks leaflet attacking the Common Core curriculum, and a two-page list of Senate votes where McConnell voted differently from Paul or from Kentucky's previous GOP senator, Jim Bunning.
"You take McCain, Graham, Mitch McConnell, Schumer, Durbin, Leahy, Reid -- you put 'em in a bag, you shake it up and pull one out. You wouldn't tell the difference. They're a bunch of crusty curmudgeons who don't care about what's going on in the real world," Bevin says, to nods from his audience.
Bevin is a millionaire investor who McConnell once tried to recruit to run for a Democratically-held House seat in Kentucky. He's invested $600,000 so far in his own campaign and has raised about $900,000.
His pitch is carefully calibrated for a libertarian-leaning tea party crowd, many of whom originally supported Paul. Bevin, an evangelical, says that his life is "founded on strong Christian principles," but is careful to note that he is running for a civic office. He says that he is "a very strongly pro-life candidate" but mentions "that doesn't sit well with everybody even within the Republican ranks."
And he's particularly strident as he laments the demise of the melting pot.
"We don't want people to melt, we want people to keep this division. We have all these hyphens. These things are cultural cancer," Bevin says, responding to a question about immigrants assimilating into American culture.
Bevin is far back in the polls, though he's gained some ground over the course of the last few months. People still don't know who he is, and many are learning about him from McConnell attack ads.
McConnell's campaign has been quick to tout documents Bevin signed touting the TARP bank bailouts as a boon for investors -- claiming they show Bevin was for the bailout before he was against it. Bevin says he signed the documents because he had a legal obligation to do so.
"He's wrong. He's false. I didn't write these, and he knows I didn't write them," Bevin told NBC News last Sunday in a wide-ranging interview.
But Bevin -- who has made millions of dollars as an investor in various companies -- couldn't say whether he had personally benefited from the bailout.
"I don't know that I did. I'm invested in many mutual funds as are you as anyone who anyone who has any money saved in 401(k) or an IRA or retirement plan," Bevin says. "It's a good question. I don't know that I have a good answer to it."
Dotting the well-to-do neighborhood where the Bevins live are black-and-white signs that read, "RETIRE MITCH." They're bought and paid for by the conservative group FreedomWorks, one of the outside groups backing him. Bevin himself started airing attack ads against McConnell this week. But his not-even-$2 million war chest hardly stacks up to the $10.9 million in cash McConnell has on hand.
If he loses, Bevin says he'll work against Grimes, the Democrat, but doesn't exactly seem enthusiastic about helping McConnell.
"In this instance, I'm running against a woman on the other side, Alison Grimes, who seems to be a genuinely nice person," Bevin says. "She's remarkably unqualified to be a U.S. senator and there's no chance that I would be supporting her efforts."
'A profile Mitch McConnell has never dealt with'
Alison Lundergan Grimes is running late for an event with women supporters in Bellevue, in far northern Kentucky. She's coming from a livestock auction, where she and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow were stomping through the mud and touting the farm bill's passage.
"One of the reporters asked me what we are going to be walking through, when we got there. And I said, it depends if Mitch McConnell has been there before," Grimes tells the women who are assembled in Bellevue, to laughter and cheers.
Grimes is a forceful, charismatic presence, quick with a broad smile and a one-liner. She touts her support for raising the minimum wage and pay equity for women, and characterizes McConnell as the leader of an old, outdated guard.
"It comes down to this: He's been doing this for 29 years. He has had 29 years to get it right. He's gotten it wrong. What makes us think in the next six he will get it right?" she asks.
Grimes is the only woman to hold a constitutional office in Kentucky, currently serving as secretary of state. While Kentucky hasn't voted for a Democrat in a statewide federal election since Bill Clinton was on the ballot, the state Democratic Party has typically been stronger in state elections. Early polls show Grimes with a slight edge over McConnell and his advisers admit that she's a serious threat, though they argue it's impossible for her to win over 50 percent of the state's voters.
The Grimes campaign had something of a rocky start, re-doing an initially flat, almost accidental announcement with a large kickoff event in Lexington. She's been a cautious candidate, especially when pushed off script, sometimes giving roundabout answers to straightforward policy questions.
For example: Does she support the mandate that health plans cover birth control? "Obviously, as a female candidate, someone who has 4 sisters, there's a lot that goes into preventative care and medicine that is great, and offering for women for the first time," Grimes told NBC News in an interview last week. "But it's a fine balance, in terms of especially recognizing religious liberty, that is there for me."
Her gender is clearly a centerpiece of her campaign, both in terms of stoking the gender gap she enjoys with female voters and in standing in contrast to McConnell, who she knocks for first going to Washington in 1984, when "big hair and cutoff sweatshirts" were all the rage.
"This is obviously a profile Mitch McConnell has never dealt with. He doesn't know what to do with a statewide, popularly elected female," she told her audience in Bellevue.
But hanging her candidacy on her gender also has its pitfalls. She's taken a campaign donation from Woody Allen, who daughter Dylan has accused of child sexual abuse -- drawing criticism from Sen. Rand Paul.
"Woody Allen has been now accused of, you know, having relations with his children. The thing is that’s not really acceptable in Kentucky. And I think she has to decide whether she’s representing Kentucky or Hollywood," Paul told NBC News last week.
"That is something that is not for me to decide, for legal system to decide," Grimes said of Dylan's accusations.
And on Tuesday, she's set to campaign with Bill Clinton, who Paul has labeled a sexual predator for the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"Bill Clinton has been a friend of my family for many years. From the day I got to greet him at the steps of Lincoln Memorial [at his inauguration]. He and Secretary Clinton, my sisters and me were there to greet him," she says when asked about Clinton's past indiscretions.
But if Clinton is welcome in Kentucky, President Barack Obama doesn't have an open invitation.
"I speak for myself, don't need any other surrogate to do that for me," she says of a potential Obama visit. "I stand in stark contrast to the president, of his ideas and platforms."
The real race
If Obama is Grimes' no. 1 vulnerability, he might just be Mitch McConnell's savior.
The president is deeply unpopular in Kentucky. The health care law, the economy, and the so-called "war on coal" are all toxic for Democrats.
"They are trying to achieve through EPA carbon regulation what they couldn’t get through Congress," McConnell said in Leburn last week. "Clearly this is a war on coal. We will fight this every single step of the way."
But polls show McConnell's approval ratings aren't much better than Obama's in the state. Even if Kentuckians can't quite say why they don't like the majority leader, they're open to an alternative.
"I think he’s done an adequate job. I think there’s room for improvement, I have to admit," said Alex Kawa, a Republican from the Louisville area who was dining at a local McAllister's Deli. "I think he’s done some good things, but I think he may be some of the problem, having been there for so long."
It's clear that as McConnell shifts his focus to the general election, he'll run on the same incumbent qualification he's relied on in the past.
"I try to appeal to all Kentucky voters … about the future of state and the significant loss of clout that would occur for Kentucky to trade in, in effect, the potential majority leader of the Senate for someone who’s going to take my desk and move it over on the Democrat side and make Harry Reid the majority leader," McConnell told NBC News.
And against Grimes, it's clear McConnell has not yet begun to fight.
"After he finishes with that tea party fella," Grimes' grandmother, Elsie Case, told one of the women in attendance at the event in Bellevue, "he will come after Alison with a vengeance."
Clayton Collins of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" contributed to this report.