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McConnell readying for tough re-election fight

Monday - 3/4/2013, 4:22am  ET

FILE – In this Feb. 26, 2013, file photo Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate GOP leadership answer questions about the looming automatic spending cuts after a Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell is gearing up for a tough re-election fight in Kentucky next year by trying to head off a GOP primary challenge, trying to scare off potential Democratic contenders, and by giving all a glimpse of his no-holds-barred political tactics. From left, Sen.s John Cornyn, R-Texas, John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., right. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

ROGER ALFORD
Associated Press

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.

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