FRANKFORT, Kentucky — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could still find himself wedged between Democratic and tea party challenges in next year's election in Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear said Wednesday he's been involved in recruiting a Democratic challenger, but acknowledged that McConnell's bare-knuckled reputation might be holding back some potential candidates.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, seen as a rising Democratic star, is considering a Senate bid but has given no timeframe for making a decision. Actress Ashley Judd considered running but announced several weeks ago that she won't.
While Democrats search for a candidate, McConnell has been building a massive campaign treasury and running television ads.
"I'm certainly going to continue to talk to people and try to make sure that we have a good candidate that will be running, because I think Sen. McConnell is vulnerable," Beshear told reporters.
A short time later, tea party activist David Adams predicted that McConnell will likely face a tea party challenger in a Republican primary.
"It's coming soon," Adams said, pointing to a pair of potential candidates sizing up a primary challenge.
One candidate will emerge from among the two, Adams said. Whoever it is will be someone who has never sought elective office, he said.
McConnell has been trying to inoculate himself from a tea party challenge. A steadfast critic of President Barack Obama, McConnell has been stressing the need for budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit. He also voted against expanding background checks for gun sales.
On Tuesday, McConnell picked up an endorsement from a key national tea party group.
Todd Cefaratti, founder of TheTeaParty.net, called McConnell "an indispensable ally of conservatives in the Senate."
Niger Innis, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, said Tuesday his group has had contact with Kentucky-based tea party groups that expressed support for McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984.
At the McConnell campaign, the focus is "on helping Kentuckians stand up against Washington's bad ideas and building a top-notch organization," campaign manager Jesse Benton said Wednesday.
"If a real opponent ever actually does materialize, we'll focus on them when appropriate," he said.
McConnell, always a prolific fundraiser, reported having more than $8.6 million on hand in his latest campaign finance report.
Beshear said he doesn't know who Kentucky Democrats will ultimately nominate next year for McConnell's seat. He noted that Grimes is considering the race and said others might be pondering bids.
The governor acknowledged that McConnell's hardball campaign tactics might be causing some to pause.
"I think that's self-evident, it's not fun to run against Mitch McConnell," he said. "Everybody knows the kinds of campaigns he runs."
An audio recording of a private strategy session that became public a few months ago revealed McConnell's campaign aides discussing using Judd's past bouts with depression against her if she decided to challenge him.
That reputation for hardball could backfire on McConnell, Beshear said.
"People are so turned off by that kind of campaigning," Beshear said. "But it turns out to be effective at times."
Beshear knows firsthand how tough it is to challenge McConnell, having lost to the senator in a bruising 1996 Senate race.
Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending, while Democrats try to hold onto 21.
Adams gave hints about what kind of campaign McConnell could face in the primary from a tea party enthusiast.
"I believe that from the get-go, a candidate who demonstrates abilities to speak to the issues and speak to the problems created by Sen. McConnell continuing to vote for bigger, more expensive and more unworkable government will make this a national race with national funds available," he said.