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Republican Mitch McConnell has been the minority leader in the U.S. Senate since 2007 and he is the longest-serving senator in the history of Kentucky. He is up for re-election next year, but polling in his state shows his popularity is suffering. If Republicans can snag a half-dozen more seats in the Senate in 2014, McConnell could finally become majority leader. But first, he has to convince Kentuckians to keep him in office. NPR's Ailsa Chang visited the Bluegrass State and sent this report.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The Mitch McConnell on TV is an old, gray guy in fancy suits, peering out from big round spectacles. When you shake his hand, you notice it's really soft, not the hand of a man who sees hard labor. But out here Eastern Kentucky, coal country, miners worship the guy.
TOMMY HOWARD: Even though he might dress fine and whatever, and all of them does, you know, but I'm sure he wouldn't care a bit to come right out here and walk around with us and ride in a truck.
CHANG: That's Tommy Howard. He has been mining coal since he was 18 years old and he says he'd like nothing more than to have a beer with Mitch McConnell.
HOWARD: If he drink. I don't know if he does or not.
CHANG: We're at a mine in a small town called Jenkins, in the Appalachians. Even though Howard is a registered Democrat, he has always voted for McConnell because McConnell has always been for the coal industry, fighting for their jobs or pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to approve more mining permits.
(SOUNDBITE OF MINING MACHINERY)
CHANG: In Eastern Kentucky, McConnell's job is easy. Voters tend to be single-issue: A politician's either for coal or against coal. But while it's a love fest for McConnell out here, his approval ratings statewide are sagging, depending on what poll you read. Walk the streets of downtown Lexington, and it's easy to find someone who thinks McConnell is spending all of his time in Washington just trying to obstruct the president, instead of paying attention to what Kentuckians want. Here's Charles Embry.
CHARLES EMBRY: He has a personal agenda and that's all he's attending to is his personal agenda. It's obvious that he doesn't take the interests of Kentucky people at heart. If he did, he would do the things that are right instead of being negative about everything that the president or anybody else is trying to do.
CHANG: McConnell takes issue with that characterization.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, you know, there have been three major deals with the Obama administration. I brokered every one of them.
CHANG: McConnell has just finished a visit with a mining equipment supplier in Eastern Kentucky. He starts ticking off examples of his ability to compromise: the extension of tax cuts in 2010, the Budget Control Act in 2011 to deal with the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff agreement last year.
MCCONNELL: In fact, I'm perfectly willing to deal with the administration when I think we have the possibility of getting an outcome that's in the best interests of the country. And, as I said, the three major deals between Republicans and the administration, I have negotiated with the vice president. I rest my case.
CHANG: But it's that willingness to deal that has a lot of Tea Partiers in Kentucky downright mad.
DAVID ADAMS: He embodies the head of the snake.
CHANG: David Adams is sitting in a restaurant in Lexington for a monthly meeting with fellow Tea Party activists. They say after three decades in Washington, McConnell has just become part of the establishment now.
ADAMS: When you look at what causes big government to proliferate in America, Senator McConnell is right in the middle of that.
CHANG: So Adams says it's time for new blood, someone similar to the other Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party darling. Ginny Saville says Paul's decisive victory in 2010 was a message to McConnell: The Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with in Kentucky.
GINNY SEVILLE: I think that he's probably pretty spooked because of Rand's election. I think that the memories of that election are coming back to haunt him now, facing his own primary coming up next year.
CHANG: Neither Tea Partiers nor Democrats have yet named a candidate to run against McConnell. Although Tea Party groups say they are considering a couple of potential names and hope to announce by early summer, but McConnell has more than $8.5 million in the bank already, so he could be hard to beat.
MCCONNELL: Well, let me say, I don't have any sense of entitlement to this office. People of Kentucky have been very good to me. They've elected me five times. My colleagues have elected me unanimously four times to be their leader.
CHANG: But if he ever hopes to seize that title of majority leader in the Senate, he will need six Republicans to steal Senate seats away from Democrats next year. And their races aren't looking as easy as his. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.