By Charles Babington
MADISONVILLE - Democrats dream of driving U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell into retirement this year, ridding President Barack Obama of one of his fiercest opponents. Tea partyers have the same dream, but they say the Senate's Republican leader actually is too accommodating to Democrats.
This left-right squeeze is forcing McConnell to scrape as hard as ever to raise money and try to extend his 30-year Senate career into a sixth term.
The squeeze also may be his salvation.
It obscures divisions among the critics who drive up McConnell's unpopularity ratings, often cited as his biggest problem. His Democratic critics can't vote in the May 20 Republican primary, when McConnell will hold an edge in name recognition and money. If he survives the primary, his tea party detractors are unlikely to vote Democratic in the November general election.
As for less ideological voters, McConnell hopes his role in crafting major compromises with Democrats will burnish his can-do image among Kentuckians, many of whom register as Democrats but often vote Republican in federal elections.
"Farmers love Mitch McConnell," said 10-term U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who introduced the senator at a recent coal-related event in snow-covered western Kentucky. "The coal industry is totally supportive of Mitch McConnell."
But some Kentuckians say McConnell's political strength in Washington, where he sometimes brokers deals with Democrats, could be his campaign weakness back home. Kentucky rejected Obama twice in landslides. Five of its six U.S. House members are Republicans.
In an interview after the coal rally in Madisonville, about 150 miles southwest of Louisville, McConnell acknowledged the dilemma. Starting with the 2004 defeat of the Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, nationwide targeting of Senate leaders "is the new paradigm," McConnell said.
"That changed my life here," he said, noting that groups from the left and right spend millions to attack him on television.
McConnell cited his role in "four major deals" during Obama's presidency: a 2010 extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts; a mid-2011 bid to avert a government default and seek a spending-cut mechanism; the end-of-2012 "fiscal cliff" deal; and last fall's agreement to end a GOP-driven government shutdown.
Tea party groups blast him for cutting such deals with Democrats. But, McConnell said, "If it's important for the country and there's enough grounds for agreement, I don't object to doing business with them."
On some issues, including the new health care law, McConnell fiercely opposes Obama. On others, such as immigration, McConnell fades into the background, forcing other Republicans to lead.
Back home, McConnell, who turns 72 on Thursday, visits Kentucky towns most weekends, and presses his staff to handle constituents' requests.
"He's the only one who helped me," said 70-year-old Anita Stirsman, citing McConnell's role in securing a government benefit for a relative 20 years ago. She has never forgotten, she said, as she awaited McConnell's Madisonville speech.
McConnell was the undisputed king of Kentucky Republican politics until 2010. That's when Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, son of libertarian hero Ron Paul, clobbered McConnell's hand-picked candidate in a GOP Senate primary. Ever since, McConnell has tried to placate tea party critics, even hiring Paul's campaign manager for his own race.
Still, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin is challenging McConnell from the right. He is spending $600,000 of his own money and drawing respectable sums from conservative groups and individuals.
Bevin's intensity contrasts with McConnell's dour deadpan, and some Republicans say he's the fresh face to replace a three-decade Senate fixture. Bevin disdainfully criticized McConnell in an interview after a GOP dinner speech in Fisherville, about 30 minutes east of Louisville.
McConnell "crows about the fact that he's given 150 speeches on Obamacare," Bevin said. "If you're that cotton-picking powerful, really, you've given 150 speeches and didn't move the needle one iota?"
Bevin also criticized McConnell for agreeing to raise the U.S. government's borrowing limit, and dismissed those who say a default could cripple the economy. "Oh please, come on," he said. "We have zero chance of defaulting."
Bevin must contend with McConnell's higher profile, potent fundraising and opposition researchers who found that Bevin had both praised and condemned the 2008 federal bank bailout. Even some of Bevin's supporters acknowledge McConnell's years of steering federal aid to Kentucky.
"He's done a fantastic job for the state," Lisa Sullivan said in Fisherville. "But it's time for a younger person."
Another Bevin complication is that Paul has endorsed McConnell, although his praise sometimes sounds lukewarm. In an interview, Paul said Obama's unpopularity will sink Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state.
"I can't imagine that we would elect a Democrat from Kentucky unless they apologized and disassociated themselves completely from the president," Paul said.
Grimes, whose father was a well-known Democrat, easily won statewide election in 2011. She is playing it safe thus far in the Senate race, calling for improved job training, a crackdown on Chinese currency manipulation, and a higher minimum wage.
Grimes' campaign staff said she was too busy for an interview. She is raising millions of dollars, some of it from Hollywood figures. Former president Bill Clinton will campaign for her Feb. 25.
McConnell wants to tie Grimes tightly to Obama's health law and his administration's restrictions on plants that burn coal, a struggling Kentucky product. He told the Madisonville crowd that Obama "wants to Europeanize America" while waging "a war on coal."
Greg Stumbo, the Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House, said efforts to coat Grimes with Obama's unpopularity won't work. He said McConnell is even less popular in Kentucky than the president.
Bashing the health care law "is getting a little bit old with voters," Stumbo said. Besides, he said, the law is working fairly well in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has promoted sign-up efforts.
"I think the race is hers to lose," he said.
Republicans say such remarks overlook McConnell's history of battling as fiercely as he must to win elections. As retired coal worker Curtis Johnson waited for the senator to speak, he said, "He's probably twisting some arms and pushing some people."