U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Matt Bevin, his opponent in Tuesday's Republican primary election, took to the skies of Kentucky on Monday as Democratic hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes wrapped up a 50-county bus tour — all in a last-minute search for voters.
Tuesday's election will finalize the Republican and Democratic nominees for what is expected to be a bruising, expensive general election on Nov. 4 for the U.S. Senate.
McConnell, who has held the seat since January 1985 and has aspirations of becoming U.S. Senate majority leader, and Bevin, a Louisville businessman making his first bid for public office, both made campaign stops in Lexington on Monday as they flew across the state.
McConnell arrived just before noon, rallying the faithful in a small boardroom of the private air terminal at Blue Grass Airport, never mentioning Bevin by name. Instead, he focused on President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and likely Democratic nominee Grimes.
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"I'm absolutely convinced that Kentucky is going to lead the nation in a different direction," McConnell said. "It all begins tomorrow."
A few hours later, Bevin stood in the same terminal, pleading with his enthusiastic supporters to not "take your foot off the gas" and telling reporters he feels "like a million bucks, baby!"
"The poll that matters — and the only poll that matters — is going to start being taken tomorrow morning at 6 o'clock ... and it's going to end at 6 p.m.," Bevin said after the rally. "I never anticipated that we would be ahead of him in a poll going into the primary anymore than he was when he ran against Dee Huddleston. He was double digits down days before going into the polls just as we are now. That is the nature of it. But here in Kentucky, we don't wear our political thought process on our sleeves. We don't. We go into the voting booth, and we vote our conscience."
In 1984, McConnell ran for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democratic incumbent Walter "Dee" Huddleston and defeated him by less than 1 percentage point.
McConnell, leading by wide margins in every major poll taken in recent days and weeks, will begin the tedious process of trying to unify his party after the primary if he's able to hold on for the win.
But Bevin, who has only hinted that he would support McConnell over Grimes in the general election if he loses Tuesday, said Monday he did not think Kentucky's senior senator could beat Grimes, noting a recent Bluegrass Poll that showed McConnell with approval numbers almost as low as Obama's.
"That should give him pause," Bevin said. "He's going to lose this seat to me in the primary if we play our cards right. But if he doesn't, he's going to lose it in November because he has no ability to get re-elected."
With reporters from The Washington Post and CBS News in attendance, McConnell told the press afterward that his high unfavorable and low approval numbers were merely a function of his leadership role.
"That's just the way it is," McConnell said. "The further up the ladder you go in American politics, the more of a target you become. And I accept that. I don't have any sense of entitlement. We're going to go out and earn the support of our voters here both in the primary and the general."
Grimes, who hopes to become the first woman from Kentucky to serve in the U.S. Senate, ended her bus tour with stops in Frankfort, Shelbyville and Louisville.
Former Govs. Martha Layne Collins and Julian Carroll campaigned for Grimes at her Frankfort stop.
Grimes told a crowd of more than 100 at Lakeview Park that she planned to retire McConnell, accusing him of "taking the state backwards for the last 30 years."
She noted that architects are planning to renovate the U.S. Capitol and are looking "to get rid of the things that just don't work in it."
"That, ironically, is the theme of our campaign," she said to loud applause.
She also reminded the crowd that a staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee had referred to her as "an empty dress."
In an interview on her campaign bus, Grimes said she was willing to debate McConnell on the issues.
"When it comes to debating, it probably will be Mitch McConnell that will be the 'empty dress' and won't show up on the other side," she said.
Despite a record number of registered voters (3,105,349), turnout was expected to be low in most parts of the state for Tuesday's primary elections. Grimes, the secretary of state, predicted that fewer than 30 percent of registered voters would cast ballots. Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins Jr. said he expected the same in Fayette County.
Even though Kentucky has closed primaries, Blevins urged independents to vote Tuesday in a variety of nonpartisan races, including judicial and mayoral elections.
"It's an expensive party to throw if no one comes," Blevins said.