VANCEBURG — On a wooded hill overlooking the AA highway in Lewis County, a "Matt Bevin for U.S. Senate" sign stands as a fading reminder that Mitch McConnell started his re-election bid with a fractured base and the possibility that he might not even be the Republican nominee.
On Wednesday, just a couple of miles away, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie stood behind a podium in a parking lot in his hometown and offered a full-throated endorsement of McConnell, the Senate minority leader.
If McConnell is able to unite his party six months after a bruising primary in which Bevin took 35 percent of the Republican vote, Massie will probably be one reason why.
It wasn't that long ago that the congressman, a hero of the Tea Party, was joining Bevin as the only federal Republican candidate in the state to refuse to sign a letter, circulated by the Republican Party of Kentucky shortly before the primary, pledging support to whomever won the GOP nomination.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
"My role as a United States congressman is to sort the things that matter from the things that don't matter, and to focus on making a positive change for my country and my constituents," Massie said in an email message in May. "While balancing the budget and protecting personal liberties deserve my focus and attention this week, this letter does not."
Massie continued: "On the evening of May 20, the primaries will be behind us and we can focus on replacing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the next Congress."
Now, with the general election just more than a week away, Massie is fully on board, even as Bevin maintains relative silence about backing McConnell. Touring Eastern Kentucky with McConnell last week, Massie focused his message on Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell's opponent as he seeks re-election; guns; and what he said is the importance of getting McConnell elected as leader of a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
Massie is even betting on McConnell to win by a wide margin. The congressman has a wager with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., that McConnell will win re-election by at least 6 points. The loser has to buy dinner.
"I gave him six points," Massie told the Herald-Leader. "That was six weeks ago so it's looking pretty good. I think he's going to be buying me dinner."
Democrats are convinced that Grimes is closing strong and in a position to win, and a Bluegrass Poll released Monday showed McConnell with a statistically insignificant 1-point lead over Grimes. To prove them wrong, McConnell will need his Republican base, Tea Party and all, to come home by Nov. 4.
In the four Bluegrass Polls conducted since the May primary, McConnell has never cracked 80 percent support among Republicans. In a Bluegrass Poll taken just before the primary, McConnell was favored by 69 percent of likely GOP voters. In late July, that number had risen to 73 percent, and since then it has hovered between 78 percent and 79 percent.
Josh Holmes, McConnell's top adviser, said the campaign is "confident that Kentuckians who are tired of the Obama agenda and are interested in a new Senate majority to take Kentucky and the country in a different direction will be there for Mitch McConnell on Nov. 4."
Massie is too, saying that most Tea Party members he has spoken with are rallying around McConnell because they see President Barack Obama and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the bigger enemies.
"At the end of the day you're either voting for Harry Reid to be the majority leader or you're going to vote for Sen. Mitch McConnell to be the majority leader," Massie said. "This isn't really about Alison Lundergan Grimes."
He added: "Most of the (Tea Party members) that I talk to know what this is about."
After a post-primary spike in anger toward McConnell when he raised money for incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Tea Party has gone largely quiet in recent months.
A phone number for the United Kentucky Tea Party's spokesman, which was listed on news releases during Bevin's run, was not working this week.
Since the primary, diehard Bevin supporter Johnny Calvin Embry of Breckenridge County has posted a number of articles on his Facebook page that were critical of McConnell .
But this week, Embry posted that he voted a straight Republican ticket on his absentee ballot, starting at the top with a vote for McConnell.
"I believe that we, as the Tea Party Republicans, need to get behind Sen. McConnell and unite that we may defeat Alison Grimes," Embry told the Herald-Leader. "When you sit back and you look at Grimes versus Mitch, Sen. McConnell is much better than Grimes by any stretch of the imagination."
Embry is also a big supporter of junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, and he mentioned Paul as one reason he came around to McConnell.
Paul, who defeated Democrat Jack Conway in 2010 after a bitter and divisive primary of his own, ended up winning about 91 percent of Republicans, according to exit polls. But in late October that year, SurveyUSA, which now conducts the Bluegrass Poll, found 81 percent of Republicans supporting Paul.
In other words, Republicans came home, but some waited until the last minute to do so.
For Paul, the trick was in winning over establishment Republicans who were skeptical of the Tea Party. For McConnell, the reverse is true. But like Paul, McConnell has the benefit of running in a state where the president's approval rating clocks in at around 30 percent.
Still, a number of Republicans contacted for this story acknowledged that there will be some Tea Party conservatives who just stay home, while others hold their noses and vote for McConnell.
Last winter, McConnell declared an all-out war on outside Tea Party fundraising groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, convinced that the candidates they supported against incumbent Republicans in 2010 and 2012 had twice cost Republicans the majority in the Senate.
McConnell and national Republicans got the candidates they wanted this spring and now stand within sight of retaking the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2006, when Democrats won the upper chamber on a wave of contempt for President George W. Bush.
Similarly, if Tea Party Republicans show up and vote for McConnell, nose-holding or not, it will largely be because of their contempt for Obama.
"The president's the best recruiter we've got in Kentucky," Massie said.