After endorsing Rand Paul in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina issued a statement saying, "Senator (Mitch) McConnell and I are on different sides in this race, but I support him as our leader."
McConnell, the Senate minority leader, had endorsed Secretary of State Trey Grayson a day earlier.
DeMint's statement sent me off on a bit of mental time travel. I landed first in December, 2007, when Greg Stumbo, the outgoing attorney general and former longtime state House majority leader announced that he would like to have his old 95th District seat back just a day after the freshman Democrat warming that seat conveniently announced his resignation due to family considerations. In making his announcement, Stumbo said he had no plans to run for one of the House leadership posts when they came open again in the 2009 organizational session.
Another quick time-traveling hop landed me on the House floor on Feb. 11, 2008, the day Stumbo was sworn in after winning his old seat in a special election. Then-Speaker Jody Richards welcomed him back with a hug, and Stumbo continued pooh-poohing any notions that he had designs on a leadership position.
I wrote at the time that I suspected Stumbo had a plan, because he always has a plan. And we all know now what that plan was.
If DeMint's comment reminded me that politicians often make nice to a fellow politician right up until the moment they pull the figurative knife out of that fellow politician's back, I suspect his endorsement of Paul set the red flags to waving faster in McConnell's office.
The "faster' reference assumes the flags were already waving because DeMint is backing Tea Party challengers to establishment Republican candidates in other states as well. Going head-to-head with your party's floor leader in his home state just removes any doubt that something's afoot.
It also increases McConnell's stake in helping Grayson pull off a miracle by overcoming a 12-point polling deficit in the final two weeks of the primary campaign. Being on the losing end of a Senate primary in Kentucky would be humiliating to McConnell, particularly when the winner has been endorsed by a member of the Senate Republican caucus with an agenda of his own.
It might not be as humiliating as losing the seat to a Democrat in the fall, but it would be humiliating nonetheless. And it arguably would increase the likelihood of the fall humiliation happening, since Grayson has more cross-party appeal than Paul and more experience at handling campaign tests.
A loss at either juncture would leave McConnell politically weakened, and a loss in the fall might leave him fatally weakened in regard to retaining his leadership position. Small wonder then that he took the rare step of intervening in a Republican primary in hopes of rescuing the better fall candidate.
But a Kentucky Poll commissioned by the Herald-Leader, Lexington's WKYT-TV and Louisville's WAVE-TV showed Paul leading Grayson by 12 percentage points two weeks before the primary. And polls commissioned by the Herald-Leader in conjunction with various TV stations have proved fairly accurate in recent years.
So where can Grayson find his miracle?
He has to hope the Kentucky Poll, which was in the field Sunday through Tuesday, missed the full impact of McConnell's Tuesday endorsement and, perhaps more important, the Monday endorsement he received from U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.
Historically, Republican primaries have been won in the old 5th Congressional District because that's where Republican voters turn out in the greatest numbers for primaries. And that's where Grayson has focused most of his attention in recent weeks.
For Republicans in the old 5th District, Hal Rogers is royalty, if not deity. If the Kentucky Poll missed the impact of his endorsement and if that endorsement mobilizes his forces and his admirers, well, Grayson has a shot.
It's a very long, long, long last-gasp shot. But it's a shot. And that's all he and, by extension, McConnell can ask for now.