FANCY FARM, Ky. – Over 800 miles from Washington, the fight for control of the U.S. Senate kicked off this weekend at a 133-year-old church picnic in this tiny western Kentucky town.
Tradition dictates that the state’s office seekers show up at this raucous rural affair to chop some barbecue, stand before a heckling crowd and endure a bluegrass band that rudely plays them off the stage if they speak for more than their allotted time.
This year, the ritual was more than ceremony – it represented an important front in the battle to control the legislative agenda in Washington. The Senate’s top Republican – minority leader Mitch McConnell was on display, as were his two challengers, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and tea party businessman Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in the GOP primary.
And they didn’t hold back in their attacks on the incumbent.
“I don’t intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell, I don’t intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell, I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell,” Bevin said at the end of his speech, to a roar from both his own supporters and from the Democrats in attendance.
Grimes seemed more than happy to share the stage with him. “Please – join me in giving a big rousing welcome to Matt Bevin,” she said, to roars from her Democratic supporters in the crowd.
The temporary truce between McConnell’s two challengers underscores why the senator will have to spend so much time and money focused on hanging on to his own seat – instead of on helping the GOP win enough Senate seats to regain control of an upper chamber that’s controlled by Democrats by a 56-44 margin. While Republicans still face an uphill battle – they have to win nearly all of the competitive contests if they want the majority even as the campaign is looking increasingly favorable for Republicans.
But it won’t be easy and the McConnell predicament is a prime example of the dual forces squeezing GOP incumbents.
“We haven’t seen a party leader get primaried with a substantive challenger and then have a legitimate candidate in the fall,” said Trey Grayson, the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics and a failed GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky. “Incumbency isn’t quite the advantage that it used to be. It also means that McConnell’s got to spend a lot of time here in Kentucky.”
In public, McConnell is ignoring both of his opponents. His campaign aides are dismissive of Bevin, a candidate they say is an unknown in the state who has yet to prove he can stand up to scrutiny from the McConnell campaign or raise enough money to be competitive.
In his five-minute speech, McConnell didn’t mention Grimes or Bevin by name – and he left the stage before Bevin’s speech even began. Instead, he highlighted his own seniority in the Senate, saying it’s led to accomplishments for the state, and said national Democrats were out to take him down.
“Every liberal in America is out to beat us next year,” McConnell said.
But behind the scenes, McConnell is already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads, mailers and radio spots attacking Bevin.
A super PAC that’s supporting him, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, has run newspaper ads showing Grimes next to President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the ad, Grimes is holding a sign that reads, “I’m with stupid.”
Bevin, a millionaire, has yet to release his personal financial disclosures, but he’s put in enough cash to print all the traditional campaign swag and to hire the consulting team that helped conservative Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey win a primary and general election.
Pressed by a reporter to say if he would spend enough to make the contest competitive, Bevin shot back: “Do you think it’s a race already? Do you think? It’s a race. And it will continue to be a race until May of next year.”
The dynamics of the Kentucky contest are simmering underneath an ongoing intraparty fight in Washington, putting McConnell, as minority leader, in a difficult spot heading into the looming fall fight over the budget, raising the debt ceiling and funding the government.
Tea party Republicans are pressuring their leaders to demand that any continuing resolution to fund the government eliminate all funding for President Barack Obama’s health care law. Bevin is supporting that push, led by conservative Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Stand with Senator Mike Lee. Be a man, stand up, and put your money where your mouth is,” Bevin told the Kentucky crowd on Saturday.
Establishment Republicans are not keen on the idea; Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called it “silly” and commissioned a CRS report that shows the health care law would still be funded even if the government shuts down.
McConnell has only said that there are “discussions” about what to do; he’s likely not to take any position at all. “It doesn’t make any sense to draw a line,” a top McConnell aide said of the defund-Obamacare effort.
If he were to support the move, McConnell could become the face of a government shutdown that Republicans fear their party would take the blame for.
If he doesn’t, McConnell risks angering the national right wing grassroots, who are also beginning to focus on the Kentucky contest. A day before the Fancy Farm picnic, Bevin was in New Orleans speaking at the RedState Gathering of conservative bloggers. (The Kentucky GOP, which hosts a breakfast where McConnell spoke before the Saturday picnic, didn’t invite Bevin to any of its weekend events.)
Every step McConnell takes toward the tea party, of course, makes the road a little bit easier for Grimes, who is labeling the five-term senator as a creature of Washington and the leader of a party that’s focused on obstruction.
“If the doctors told Sen. McConnell that he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it,” she jabbed during her Saturday speech.
But Grimes has an ongoing problem of her own: Obama, who’s deeply unpopular even with Democrats in the state.
NBC News asked her in an interview whether she’d want the president to come to Kentucky and campaign for her.
“This is a campaign that is about Kentucky, not Washington,” she responded, “and we’re going to run a campaign that all Kentuckians can be proud of.”