BARBOURVILLE — At the mention of Mitch McConnell's name, Republican Mack Yoakum contorted his face as though he had taken a drink of sour milk, punctuating the sentiment with a thumbs down.
Standing across the counter of Knox Pawn Shop from Yoakum, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in Tuesday's Republican primary, made his pitch, telling Yoakum that he is a Christian, an Army veteran and a father of nine.
"I've never run for political office," Bevin said. "I never wanted to be a politician."
The problem for Bevin, as it is for many first-time candidates, is that many voters have never heard of him. Yoakum became familiar with Bevin only the evening before, when, coincidentally, Yoakum's daughter, Lindsay, came across a picture of Bevin's nine children and Googled the Republican challenger.
After hearing Bevin criticize McConnell, warn against voter apathy and plead for votes, Mack Yoakum remained on the fence, wary of McConnell after 30 years in office but still unsure of what Bevin stands for.
"I don't know," Yoakum said of voting for Bevin.
His response illustrates why McConnell remains the heavy favorite to win Tuesday's Republican primary over Bevin, setting up the fight of his political life against likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, carries high disapproval ratings that traditionally foretell forced retirement at the hands of voters.
In an April interview with the Herald-Leader, McConnell said the reporter was "obsessed" with his approval numbers, dismissing the low marks as the result of his leadership position.
"Look, you get to be in this position, you get hammered a lot," McConnell said. "It happened to Daschle, it happened to me in '08, it happened to Reid in 2010. It goes with the turf."
Since entering the race in late July, Bevin has sought to take advantage of McConnell's weak numbers with a variety of arguments: McConnell has been there too long, he cares more about Washington lobbyists than hard-working Kentuckians, he's an enabler of President Barack Obama's liberal agenda.
It's the last point that has made it so difficult for Bevin to gain traction against McConnell.
Kentucky's senior senator has become synonymous with Republican efforts to derail Obama's agenda, famously telling the National Journal in October 2010 that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
McConnell's reputation as a fierce campaigner has been borne out in his race against Bevin, as the senator harshly welcomed the challenger to the race with a series of revelations that raised questions about Bevin's credibility.
McConnell has suffered several missteps as he fights a two-front contest against Bevin and Grimes, but his efforts to dispatch Bevin have been classic McConnell — define Bevin as untrustworthy before Bevin has a chance to introduce himself to voters.
It began with the news, published in The Hill newspaper, that Bevin incorrectly listed Massachusetts Institute of Technology under his education credentials on the social networking site LinkedIn. That was followed by documents showing that Bevin had applied for Connecticut state funds to help rebuild a factory he owned that was destroyed by fire and, later, that he had signed a letter that praised the 2008 bank bailout bill, known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
Bevin dismissed each attack as a cynical ploy by McConnell to divert voters' attention from real issues, such as McConnell's vote in favor of the bank bailout bill, but the nickname "Bailout Bevin" stuck.
"The cards were stacked against Bevin from the beginning, both because McConnell's relatively conservative record insulated him from a flank attack on the right and because the Tea Party is not especially strong here," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "I mean that both organizationally but also in terms of the ideological orientation of Kentucky Republicans, many of whom — especially in the eastern part of the state — do not appear to be especially conservative on the issues that motivate the Tea Party."
McConnell, having watched upstart Tea Party Republican challengers knock off incumbent GOPers in the last two election cycles, saw an opportunity for a larger battle.
In late October, the Herald-Leader reported that McConnell, seeing all of his enemies in one place and his lifelong dream of becoming Senate majority leader within grasp, went all-in against Bevin as a proxy fight against outside Tea Party fundraising groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project.
In the minds of many McConnell supporters, those groups had cost Republicans the Senate majority by propping up candidates who could never be palatable to general election audiences. Thus, the goal became not just to beat Bevin, but to beat him badly and in a way that separated Tea Party voters from Tea Party fundraising groups.
Having raised well more than $20 million to date — spending more than half of it going into May — McConnell overwhelmed Bevin and his outside backers at every point.
After kicking off his campaign with a $600,000 personal loan, Bevin struggled to raise the kind of money necessary to compete with McConnell. After indicating to the Herald-Leader in late December that he was done putting his own money in the race, saying that "The people who attempt to finance their way into office are rarely successful," Bevin invested an additional $350,000 in his campaign during April.
He was loath to discuss the contribution this week.
Voters are "talking about issues that matter. They're not talking about funding of campaigns. They don't care," Bevin said. "It's fun, it's titillating to talk about all this other nonsense, but your average person on the street could give a flying rip."
Despite being heavily outspent, Bevin and his backers will end up raising and spending more against an incumbent Republican U.S. senator in a primary than any before them. For example, Bevin and his backers will easily outpace the roughly $2 million spent by Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock when he upset former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.
Despite spending millions, Bevin has been unable to control his campaign's message, most recently going off the rails when it was revealed that Bevin attended a pro-cockfighting rally in Corbin in March.
Bevin said he thought he was attending a states' rights rally and stuck to that explanation even after WAVE-TV in Louisville unveiled a recording made by an undercover reporter at the event.
When Bevin was asked at the event whether he would vote to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky, he told the audience that "criminalizing behavior, if it's part of the heritage of this state, is in my opinion a bad idea. A bad idea. I will not support it."
Bevin was not a high-quality candidate, Voss said, "because he lacked experience in a lower office that would have set him up for a senatorial battle and because he lacked experience with the pressure-cooked campaign environment."
In the end, "his inexperience showed," Voss said.
'I'm going to win'
On Wednesday night, Bevin launched a bus tour in Richmond, hustling to close the gap — an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this week showed McConnell leading Bevin 57 percent to 25 percent — before Tuesday's primary.
McConnell, confident of victory, declined to discuss Bevin's candidacy in a recent interview, focusing his attention on Grimes and the fall campaign. Still, his campaign sought to make sure there were no loose ends in putting Bevin away
"It's true for primaries and it's true for general elections: Politics is a contact sport," said Billy Piper, a former aide and longtime ally of McConnell's. "You can't expect things to just fall into place. If there's another name on the ballot, you have to do everything you can to make sure the voters are going to go and support you."
While McConnell looks to be on the verge of a convincing victory over Bevin, Democrats have delighted in watching the battle.
"He's had to blow through about $10 million," said former U.S. Rep. Mike Ward, a Democratic ally of Grimes. "Having blown through that money, he ends up essentially, after a primary, with a woman who is going to match him dollar for dollar and who beat him two quarters in a row."
McConnell also faces the daunting task of unifying Republicans, some of whom were undoubtedly turned off by the ferocity of his attacks on Bevin.
So far, efforts by the Republican Party of Kentucky to get Bevin's signature on a unity pledge have been met with silence. On Wednesday, Bevin paused with an intense glare when asked if he would support McConnell against Grimes.
"I'm going to win," Bevin said. "We'll worry about what he does on the night of May 20. Seriously."