FRANKFORT — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took sides in Kentucky's GOP primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday and endorsed Secretary of State Trey Grayson, highlighting a growing uneasiness between the Republican Party establishment and grass-roots conservatives.
"I rarely endorse in primaries, but these are critical times," Kentucky's most prominent Republican said in a Grayson campaign ad that started airing Tuesday. "... I know Trey Grayson and trust him. We need Trey's conservative leadership to help turn back the Obama agenda."
Most polling shows Grayson significantly trailing Tea Party movement favorite Rand Paul, who also has the backing of retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, the lawmaker Grayson and Paul hope to replace.
Aside from trying to breathe new life into Grayson's foundering campaign, the endorsement is a sign of just how much McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has riding on the election.
Paul has repeatedly criticized Republicans and Democrats alike for their support of budget earmarks that funnel money to projects in their home districts and for supporting a bailout for banks as the economy crumbled in late 2008. McConnell won re-election that year as he supported the bank bailout and waged a campaign that centered on his ability to steer money to Kentucky.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon and the son of 2008 presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has refused to say whether he would support McConnell if a challenger seeks his leadership post.
"Unlike my opponent, I am committed to seeing him reelected to that position in the next Congress," Grayson said. "I thank him for his support and hope to have the opportunity to work with him on behalf of Kentuckians."
Conservative South Carolina U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint has been mentioned as a challenger to McConnell for the Senate GOP leadership position. DeMint has not issued an endorsement in the Kentucky primary but said Tuesday he has not ruled out backing Paul and "it's no secret" he thinks highly of Paul and his positions.
Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley said DeMint and Paul would have "a natural political alliance."
"After today, McConnell certainly can't count on Paul's vote for minority leader," Lasley said.
DeMint endorsed Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio in the Florida U.S. Senate race against establishment pick and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has since announced he is running as an independent. In the California U.S. Senate primary, DeMint endorsed State Assemblyman Chuck Devore over Republican Tom Campbell and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
"McConnell is trying to maintain his position, and senators like Jim DeMint are trying to assert themselves as influential," said Nathan Gonzalez, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Grayson said he talked to DeMint several months ago but could not recall whether he asked for DeMint's endorsement. Grayson said he recently asked McConnell to endorse him, "and he just agreed to do it in the last few days."
Grayson said he waited until late in the campaign to ask McConnell for his support because "many Kentucky voters make up their minds in the last minute."
But Louisville political consultant and former state Democratic Party chairman Danny Briscoe said this week's endorsements by McConnell and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, for Grayson are "too little, too late."
"They should have gotten in earlier," Briscoe said. "Why did they wait so long?"
Paul's campaign had no comment on the McConnell endorsement, but it did release an ad about the endorsement switch this week of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson Jr. from Grayson to Paul.
The ad repeats an allegation that "senior members of the GOP lied to Dobson" about Paul's stance on abortion.
"They will do anything to keep Rand Paul from shaking up Washington," says the ad, which does not identify who allegedly lied to Dobson.
Efforts to reach Dobson for comment this week have not been successful, and McConnell was not available to answer questions Tuesday.
Even before his formal endorsement, McConnell lent Grayson his tacit support by sponsoring a fund-raiser attended by several senators.
"For the last year and a half I've seen firsthand the efforts the left will go to in order to enact President Obama's far-reaching policies," McConnell said in a statement. "Their moves to have the government take over banks, car companies, the student loan business and most recently pass government-run health care are turning the U.S. into a western European-style economy. I refuse to let America be the next Greece, and I need Trey Grayson in the Senate to help me turn back the Obama agenda."
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said the endorsements by McConnell and Rogers are "part of the goal" to get rank-and-file Republicans to vote.
"The difference between winning and losing is getting voters to the polls," Duffy said. "The one thing Paul does have is voters with intensity. They'll vote in a storm. Grayson will have to match that intensity."
University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross said the McConnell endorsement also should help Grayson attract a late infusion of campaign donations.
Gross said McConnell, who wants to increase Republican numbers in the Senate, thinks Democrats will have a hard time beating Grayson in November's general election.
"Grayson has conservative credentials but is mainstream," Gross said. "Democrats could go for him, but I don't know if Rand Paul could beat the Democratic nominee."