There's a certain script Republican primaries have come to follow, and it involves establishment types proclaiming the incumbent better positioned to take on a Democrat than whichever tea-party challenger.
But in Kentucky, the establishment might have it backwards.
Matt Bevin, the Louisville-area businessman running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is new to politics. He's dismissed by many in the GOP as a glorified gadfly. Still, he's got something the veteran lawmaker lacks — a thin record that will be difficult for Democrats to pick apart.
Indeed, Democrats are hoping to turn the Senate race into a referendum on an unpopular incumbent. But without McConnell on the ticket, the presumed Democratic nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, will face a much tougher foe in the fresh-faced Republican, some longtime Bluegrass State political watchers say.
It's not that Bevin is any stronger than a generic Republican candidate. But in deeply red Kentucky, that's all that's needed. President Obama lost Kentucky by 22 points last year, and the older white voters who turn out in greater proportion during a midterm election will push the state even further to the right. In a race about issues — like climate-change regulations and Obamacare — a Democratic candidate who can be tied to the president stands little chance.
McConnell's unpopularity is the sole reason Democrats hope they can win in a state otherwise hostile to their federal candidates. The Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling has called McConnell the least popular senator based on its surveys, while an internal poll from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee found that an overwhelming majority of voters, 71 percent, don't think he's working to change politics in Washington.
Seeking a sixth term in office when voter antipathy toward Washington reaches all-time highs isn't easy. And in the early going, the Grimes campaign has framed the GOP leader as the personification of everything wrong with the country's dysfunctional political system.
But against Bevin, who has never held office and is running a campaign that emphasizes his outsider credentials, Grimes's strategy disintegrates.
"It would be night-and-day-change for the race," said Jim Cauley, a Democratic strategist in Kentucky who thinks Bevin presents a greater challenge than McConnell. "We would have to switch gears completely."
Even Bevin's avowed hard-right conservatism wouldn't cripple him in a general election. He has taken positions, such as threatening to shut down the government if Obamacare isn't defunded, that could hurt him in a general election. But Kentucky voters were presented with another ultraconservative candidate, Rand Paul in 2010, and put him in office despite a stiff challenge from the state's attorney general. And while Bevin's positions are sharp, he's never backed any position as egregious as Paul's stated uneasiness, later recanted, with the Civil Rights Act.
"That was the knock on Rand Paul, that he was so far to the right," said Dan Adams, who ran the now-senator's primary campaign in 2010 and is a Bevin supporter. "If there was any concern in 2010 about that, it was taken care of then. The only thing that has changed is we've probably become more conservative as a state."
Bevin's candidacy wouldn't lack for potential pitfalls: His lack of experience might help boost his appeal, but it also means he's untested. A difficult campaign could expose him as liable to make the same mistakes as previous (and infamous) Republican candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin. In a sign of Bevin's vulnerability, McConnell's campaign has already run a TV ad criticizing him for lying about being a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Jesse Benton, the senator's campaign manager, said it is "profoundly absurd" to believe Bevin was a stronger general-election candidate than McConnell. Bevin, he said, is "unproven and untested" and carried "deep flaws with virtually no vetting."
McConnell, on the other hand, is a veteran politician who has survived tough challenges before. And many independent political analysts, such as Nate Silver of The New York Times, expect him to walk into a general election against Grimes as the heavy favorite.
Many Bluegrass operatives also say that, in any case, it's a moot point. McConnell remains the heavy favorite against Bevin, who has yet to solidify the party's conservative factions behind him. The incumbent has far more money, much higher name recognition, and the prized endorsement of conservative grassroots favorite Paul. Bevin hasn't even been able to earn an endorsement from the anti-establishment Club for Growth.