Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled in recent days he is increasingly focusing on his Democratic opponent in next year's Senate race and not so much on his Republican primary challenger.
McConnell's decision to visibly enter negotiations to reopen the federal government indicated the senator saw more political value from taking a lead role in forging a compromise than risk of angering Tea Party Republicans.
Shortly after the federal government reopened its doors Thursday morning, McConnell had little to say about Republican opponent Matt Bevin, focusing his comments instead on his role in Washington and Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Grimes' campaign has waged a news-release campaign against McConnell since the partial government shutdown began, accusing him daily of being responsible for the shutdown and labeling him "Senator Gridlock."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
McConnell said that his high-profile part in the deal that ended the shutdown and extended the debt ceiling had taken the air out of Grimes' message.
"It steps on the whole narrative of her campaign, and so she's desperately trying to criticize something I was praised for by Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar among others," McConnell said.
"That's why she's engaged in this sort of desperate name-calling."
The Grimes campaign fired back with a release that McConnell was still "Senator Gridlock," noting a number of past remarks McConnell has made proudly proclaiming himself a "guardian of gridlock."
"It is an embarrassment that McConnell waited until the 11th hour to stop the manufactured crisis that he and members of Congress created," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said. "It is not heroic for Mitch McConnell to do his job and reopen the government. He may think this is a winning strategy, but Kentuckians now have to pay for Mitch McConnell's Washington dysfunction."
McConnell and his campaign have been engaging Grimes since she entered the race, and Thursday's back-and-forth showed little new except Republican insistence that McConnell had successfully undercut the Democrat's message.
What is new is an increasing sense from McConnell and his team that they are more concerned with Grimes and less so with Bevin, a Louisville businessman.
McConnell's interview with the Herald-Leader last Friday, in which he publicly expressed his desire to work with Democrats to find a solution to the stand-off in Washington, came just hours after Bevin's third-quarter fundraising totals were made public.
While Bevin remained critical throughout the debate and after the deal, the senator's desire to be in the middle of a compromise with Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested he favored whatever positives might come from being a part of a compromise over any blowback he might receive from Bevin.
There is no evidence the senator made the calculation to get involved in negotiations because of Bevin's quarterly report, but McConnell is a tested politician with a reputation for high-level political thinking.
McConnell has about $10 million cash on hand, while Bevin raised a little more than $220,000 in the third quarter on top of the more than $600,000 he contributed from personal funds.
Sidelining Bevin for the time being has come at a cost.
McConnell spent significantly on ads in an effort to define both Grimes and Bevin as they entered the race.
Records show McConnell had a 92 percent burn rate last quarter, raising close to $2.3 million but spending almost $2.1 million.
For his part, Bevin scoffs at the suggestion that McConnell is looking past him, telling the Herald-Leader on Wednesday that he has coincidentally run into McConnell in the airport twice recently.
"The look on his face when he sees me is not one of a man who's comfortable with me in the race," Bevin said. "He's scared very much and for good reason."
Bevin's fundraising numbers are modest for a race against a member of Senate leadership, and he's indicated he does not want to finance the whole campaign himself.
The challenger could see that tide turn though as 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hinted on her Facebook page Thursday morning that she will get involved in the race.
Palin could inject much-needed interest and energy into Bevin's campaign.
But McConnell's interview Thursday morning was atypical of a candidate who fears a Tea Party backlash.
"I take a back seat to no one in my opposition to the Obama administration," McConnnell said. "But there are times of national crisis when someone needs to step forward. When the nation is in a crisis it's important for leaders to step up and show the way out."
Meanwhile, a poll released Thursday by the left-leaning Progressive Policy Polling group was the fourth in a row to show Grimes with the slimmest of leads over McConnell.
The survey showed Grimes with a 45 percent to 43 percent edge, which was within the survey's margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The PPP poll suggested Grimes had not been able to capitalize on Kentuckians' disgust with the Washington meltdown.
Thursday's poll, which asked voters whom they would support "now that you know Mitch McConnell supported the shutdown," showed almost no change in the race from a poll by the same company in early August shortly after Grimes announced her run.
The Aug. 1 PPP poll showed Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 44 percent.
With a long stretch to go before next May's primaries, Bevin still has plenty of time to make McConnell rethink how seriously he is taking his Republican challenger. But for now, McConnell has demonstrated that his primary focus is on Grimes and next November.