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Mitch McConnell Cruises to Victory Over Tea Party Challenger

Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans in Washington and a symbol of the GOP establishment, handily defeated Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin Tuesday, dealing another blow to the party’s conservative wing.

The Associated Press called the race for McConnell as polls closed at 7pm ET. With about 96 percent of the votes in, McConnell led 60 percent to 36 percent.

"Matt brought a lot of passion and tenacity to this race, and he made me a stronger candidate," McConnell told supporters at a victory party Tuesday night. "A tough race is behind us. It's time to unite."

Bevin, a Louisville businessman and millionaire, pumped a million dollars of his own fortune into the campaign, and he had substantial financial support from outside conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Tea Party Patriots.

But he proved no match for McConnell, a seasoned campaigner whose team branded Bevin as hypocritical on fiscal issues –labeling him “Bailout Bevin” in early advertising -- before the first-time campaigner was able to introduce himself to voters.

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Bevin’s attempts to paint McConnell as a squishy conservative also fell flat, as the Senate minority leader led high-profile fights against the president’s signature health care law in Washington D.C. McConnell also benefited from early backing from fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of Tea Party acolytes. (In a video address to attendees at McConnell's victory party, Paul praised the Senate minority leader and pledged to campaign for him in the general election.)

For his part, Bevin also stumbled over unforced errors, including the revelation that he spoke at a pro-cockfighting rally earlier this year.

Conservative groups that had backed Bevin immediately called for the party to unify and support McConnell in what will be a much more difficult general election race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Bevin, who had declined to say whether he would campaign for McConnell in the general election, told supporters Tuesday night that he had "no intention" of supporting Democratic ideas, although he did not explicitly mention McConnell by name.

"I want to make clear to each of you assembled that I have no intention whatsoever in this race, or in any other race that I'm aware of at this time in this state, of supporting the Democrat platform over that of the Republican platform," he said.

A recent NBC News-Marist poll showed the two candidates running neck and neck in a state where McConnell’s overall popularity has sagged.

McConnell made an explicit pitch Tuesday to retain his power as a top senator from the Bluegrass State. "Make me the majority leader and Kentucky will lead America," he said.

Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state and the daughter of a longtime political mover and shaker in the state, has already gotten boosts from high-profile Democrats like former President Bill Clinton.

"My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her in this race," McConnell said of Grimes, offering an early glimpse of his general election message.

Grimes hit back in her remarks after securing the Democratic nomination, trying to create some distance between herself and a president deeply unpopular in Kentucky.

"President Obama is not on Kentucky's 2014 election ballot," she said. "Nothing about this election will change who is in the White House but we can change who is in Washington, DC and finally put someone for the commonwealth of Kentucky."

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Still, McConnell may have to walk a fine line in criticizing Grimes, who would be the state's first female senator. Even before McConnell arrived to make his victory remarks Tuesday night, a local Louisville supporter voiced the kind of criticism that could land Grimes's opponents in hot water with female voters.

"I’m gonna tell you something, when the senator gets up here tonight, you need to push him, because some fool said that stupid woman with two years’ experience has a chance," councilman Kelly Downard told the crowd at McConnell's victory party. "Don’t let anyone believe that.”

NBC's Kasie Hunt contributed.