CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Mitch McConnell knocked off an incumbent Democrat in a close race in 1984 to win his Senate seat, he did so because of voters in the cities of Louisville and Lexington.
If he is re-elected for a sixth term Tuesday, it will be rural voters like Jason Cox, a beef cattle farmer in Campbellsville, that send him back to Washington. That's in part because rural areas in Kentucky have shifted to supporting Republicans as the GOP has tied state Democrats to the national party and president, who is deeply unpopular here.
Cox was a tobacco farmer who benefited from a multibillion-dollar tobacco buyout, which compensated tobacco growers and others for losing production quotas when the government's price-support program ended a decade ago. The buyout was paid by an assessment on tobacco companies, and McConnell has ensured Kentucky farmers received their full payments each year.
"I don't feel like we would have got one had it not been for Mitch McConnell," Cox said. "I've got a wife and five children. It takes a lot to live."
Over the years, McConnell's dominance in rural Kentucky has kept him in office, something he jokes about by saying: the smaller the town, the better I do. This year, though, he is locked in the tightest race he has been in since 1984, and control of the Senate is at stake.
"Louisville and Lexington during the course of my career have become much more Democratic," McConnell said. "The good news is most of the rest of Kentucky has become much more Republican."
McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes have spent considerable time in small town Kentucky. Grimes boasted this week that she has visited all 120 counties in the state.
During a stop in Benton in Marshall County, Grimes used a folksy style that connected with the crowd in a staunchly conservative corner of the state.
"He tells us that we should give him another six years, on top of the 30 he's already had, because somehow that constitutes going in a new direction," Grimes said of McConnell. "Y'all buy it?" The crowd replied: "No!"
Darrell Sisk attended a Grimes rally in Princeton. He said Republicans made inroads in rural Kentucky with their opposition of abortion, gay rights and gun restrictions. But it's also home to some of the state's worst poverty, and Sisk, a Grimes supporter, said she might be able to connect with that message.
"She's talking about the real issues," he said. "She's talking about unemployment, about jobs. She's talking about helping those that have been laid off and have lost their unemployment benefits."
McConnell and outside groups have blanketed the airwaves with ads linking Grimes with President Barack Obama, who has been trounced both times he was on the ballot in Kentucky.
Democrat Mike Cherry, a former state lawmaker from Caldwell County in western Kentucky, said state Democrats up and down the ballot are put on the defensive in rural areas by being compared to more liberal members of the national party.
"When you see a picture of her superimposed on a picture of our administration Democrats, it sinks in," Cherry said. "But I think she's done everything that she possibly could to distance (herself) from him. And I think the discerning voter can see that."
It still works with some voters, though, including Sherman Chaudoin, who identified himself as conservative Democrat.
"I think she'd be an Obama supporter, and I wouldn't vote for anybody that I thought would support his policies," he said.
Schreiner reported from Princeton and Benton, Kentucky.