When Mitch McConnell receives the National Rifle Association's "Defender of Freedom" Award in Louisville on Friday, he and the group will be cementing a friendship that McConnell's team thinks could be the difference in next year's Senate race.
The NRA, which spent more than $16 million in the 2012 election cycle, plans to be heavily involved in McConnell's re-election effort, the group said Thursday.
"We're watching closely," Chris Cox, the NRA's top lobbyist, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "And we're going to make sure that gun owners in Kentucky understand that they have a champion representing them in the United States Senate."
Alison Lundergan Grimes, the likely Democratic challenger to McConnell, had a simple response Thursday, challenging McConnell to meet her on the gun range.
"As an NRA member, my strong support for the Second Amendment is unquestioned," Grimes said in a statement to the Herald-Leader. "I am proud of Kentucky's long-held gun ownership, sporting and hunting traditions. It is unfortunate that Senator McConnell is desperate to mislead Kentucky voters about my strong support for the Second Amendment."
If elected, Grimes said, she would protect Kentuckians' right to keep and bear arms.
"Whenever he's not busy pandering to Washington lobbyists, I welcome Senator McConnell to come shoot with me at the range any day," she said.
On the range or not, Cox said, Grimes has paid only "lip service" to gun owners, comparing the Democrat to President Barack Obama, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
"It's safe to say that law-abiding gun owners in Kentucky represent not only a loyal group of voters but a savvy group of voters," Cox said. "And they know the difference between campaign rhetoric and someone who has fought in the trenches for years for their issues."
Grimes angered the group by attending a Las Vegas fundraiser last month that was co-hosted by trial attorney Michael Papantonio. In the wake of mass shootings, Papantonio has been intensely critical of the NRA.
"Thankfully, Mitch McConnell isn't interested in exploiting tragedy," Cox said.
He said the NRA generally waits until after filing deadlines — Kentucky's is Jan. 28 — before it gets involved in races. But when it does, it will be heavily involved in trying to help McConnell, who is facing fierce challenges from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the Republican primary and from Grimes.
To that end, the NRA will be hosting events at gun shows, doing literature drops, going door-to-door and running television, radio and online advertising on McConnell's behalf.
"It'll include all of the above and the kitchen sink," Cox said.
The NRA's political action committee, according to OpenSecrets.org, has raised more than $10 million for the 2014 cycle and has more than $11 million on hand.
Despite intense political pressure following tragic events such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed in December, Cox said the group has its highest membership rolls to date, with more than 5 million members nationwide.
But the group got little return on its investments in 2012, losing all the Senate races in which it invested and coming up short in its efforts to help Republican Mitt Romney beat Obama.
The McConnell campaign, which is using the award presentation and the start of deer-hunting season to launch "Sportsmen for Team Mitch," sees an opening with gun owners.
"Kentuckians overwhelmingly support our right to responsibly hunt, fish and defend our homes," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said. "Alison Lundergan Grimes and her Obama-Hollywood crowd don't understand why Kentucky holds these rights and traditions dear, but Mitch will not rest until their assaults on our liberty have been beaten back."
If McConnell, who was presented with the NRA's "Defender of the Constitution" award in 2008, can survive the challenge from Bevin, who enjoys the support of Gun Owners of America, he looks to be locked with Grimes in a tight race where every vote will count.
Cox said Thursday he thought gun owners could be the difference.
"Gun owners are understandably concerned," Cox said. "And when gun owners are concerned and activated, they can make a difference in elections."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.