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McConnell Cozying Up To Tea Party To Head Off Primary Challenge

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office following a press conference after a Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 26, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office following a press conference after a Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 26, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is gearing up for a tough re-election fight next year in Kentucky.

He wants to prevent one, too.

McConnell is trying to head off a GOP primary challenge by cozying up to the Tea Party. He’s also trying to scare off potential Democratic contenders — actress Ashley Judd is one — by providing a glimpse of his no-holds-barred political tactics.

The strategy seems to be working, so far. No serious Republican opponent has emerged. Democrats haven’t fielded a candidate yet, though Judd, a Kentucky native who lives in Tennessee, is considering a run. She would have to re-establish a residence in Kentucky before she could challenge McConnell.

The lack of an opponent hasn’t kept McConnell from sounding an alarm over his potential vulnerability. It’s a tactic rooted in reality and intended to help raise money.

“We know that President Obama’s allies in Washington are doing everything they can to find a candidate to run against me in a primary or a general election,” McConnell said in a statement to The Associated Press. “They’ve made no secrets about their willingness to back anybody right, left, or center to get me out of their way.”

Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats’ biggest prize of the 2014 election.

His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending while Democrats try to hold onto 21, hoping to retain or add to their 55-45 edge.

The 71-year-old McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, is a resilient politician with an unbroken string of victories and a reputation of pummeling opponents. He’s taking no chances even with an election more than a year away.

He has amassed a hefty bank account, with $7.4 million on hand of the $10 million he’s already raised, mostly from out-of-state donors. That’s a huge amount in Kentucky, where TV advertising rates are less expensive than elsewhere.

Given his leadership post and fundraising prowess, McConnell could double that as the election nears.

He spent more than $20 million in 2008 and won by just 6 percentage points over Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford. This time, he’ll probably need as much as he can collect. Polls show that McConnell is widely unpopular in the state, and Democratic-leaning groups have started running ads against him.

To endear himself to voters, McConnell has promoted his efforts to protect jobs in Kentucky. In doing so, he has sent them a not-so-subtle message that his clout as Republican leader is reason enough to give him a sixth term.

Factory representatives have credited him with helping preserve some 3,000 Kentucky jobs last year alone. Many were in small sewing factories that were at risk of losing federal military contracts. A deal he brokered with Energy Secretary Steven Chu saved 1,200 jobs at the Paducah gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant.

The longest-serving senator in Kentucky history has presided over a GOP revival in the state over the past three decades. Republicans hold both Senate seats and five of the state’s six seats in the U.S. House. All were won with help from McConnell, who may not look the part of a political powerhouse but whose keen instincts have kept him at the top.

The chairman of Kentucky’s Democratic Party, Dan Logsdon, says McConnell’s longevity will be a critical issue. “He’s become a part of Washington, and Kentuckians all across our commonwealth have said it’s time to make a change,” Logsdon says.

McConnell counters: “I have no sense of entitlement about representing Kentucky. Kentuckians always choose the person who earns their support.”

As the face of the Republican establishment, McConnell saw his standing in the state threatened during the 2010 elections when his chosen candidate for a vacant Senate seat, then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, lost to Tea Party-backed Rand Paul in a primary campaign that pitted the old guard in the GOP against a new band of insurgents.

McConnell’s answer to bridging those divisions and, perhaps, insulate himself from a primary challenge was to form strong Tea Party ties himself.

He quickly mended fences after Paul won the GOP nomination, and helped Paul raise money and develop strategy for the general election. The two have had a relationship of tolerance on Capitol Hill.

The Tea Party leader praised McConnell as a friend before hundreds of Tea Party activists last year on the Statehouse steps, and McConnell drew cheers. McConnell has recruited Paul’s former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to lead his own re-election effort.

The moves signaled that potential Tea Party opponents should stand down even if they still disagree with McConnell.

He agitated Tea Party activists anew when he joined with Vice President Joe Biden late last year to work out a compromise on the “fiscal cliff,” which threatened automatic tax increases and spending cuts. One of those activists, David Adams of Nicholasville, said that deal “is just more smoke and mirrors from someone who has a decades-long track record of mostly smoke and mirrors.”

Despite grousing, Kentucky tea party groups have had little luck trying to recruit a strong primary challenger. At least two businessmen with Tea Party ties, John Kemper of Lexington and Matt Bevin of Louisville, are considering runs.

Beyond any primary, McConnell also is taunting would-be Democratic challengers in a comical online video intended to raise second thoughts about taking on a politicians known as brawler. Never hugely popular with his constituents, McConnell has managed to win elections by making his opponents even more unpopular.

The video shows Judd, who has a home in the Nashville, Tenn., suburbs, saying “Tennessee is home” and that San Francisco is “my American city home.” It also shows some of Kentucky’s leading Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen, saying they won’t run against McConnell.

Republican-leaning group American Crossroads is assailing Judd in its own online video that plays up the fact that she lives in Tennessee, and that she campaigned for President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.

Judd has been discussing the prospects of challenging McConnell with Democratic leaders, including Gov. Steve Beshear. Her interest has other Democrats sitting on the sidelines until she makes a decision. She has kept silent in the face of the early attack, as has the state Democratic Party.

McConnell said in a national broadcast interview Sunday that he expected “a spirited race. And of course there are a lot of left-wingers around the country who believe that the 2014 Senate race in Kentucky is the only race of national significance. And they would love to take out the Republican leader of the Senate. We’ll be ready for them.”

Asked specifically about Judd, McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “we’ll see who they nominate and we’ll be happy to run against whomever is chosen.”

Republican strategist Larry Forgy, a Lexington lawyer and former gubernatorial candidate, said it appears McConnell and his allies are giving Judd a taste of what she’d face as a candidate — a barrage of attack ads playing nonstop for months.

“They figure she’s not thick-skinned, that she won’t put up with this, that she’ll see they’ll say everything in the world,” Forgy said. “Mitch McConnell is not afraid of her, because she’s just not politically positioned in this state philosophically to beat him. But he’d rather run against nobody.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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