Still, McConnell's campaign is taking him seriously enough to run cable TV and radio ads attacking him as "Bailout Bevin" for accepting a state grant to help rebuild his Connecticut bell factory, which was destroyed in a fire last year. A McConnell spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
The conservative challenger is attracting the attention of influential players in the tea party movement such as Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that endorsed him Friday, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who suggested in a Facebook post this week that she will engage in the race.
McConnell's decision to craft a deal with Reid this week inflamed tea party activists around the country and provided his 46-year-old challenger with new fodder for his anti-establishment, small government message.
"It certainly hardens the opposition to him," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. "He's been running around saying we've got to get rid of 'Obamacare', root and branch. So the question is, how come you weren't willing to go to the wall?"
Tea party sentiment is not unanimous, however. Fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) said this week that McConnell got the best deal he could on the shutdown. And the Club for Growth, which is funding several tea party candidates against GOP incumbents, offered measured praise for McConnell on Friday and said it was still assessing the race.
Cross said McConnell could win points with moderate Republicans who like a Kentuckian in a leadership role and wanted to see him step in to help.
That's the feeling of Debbie Perdue, a 58-year-old retired nurse and alpaca farmer.
"He does have a lot of political power, and whoever comes in behind him will not have that power and history," said Perdue, as she finished lunch with a friend at the Tea Cup, a restaurant on Taylorsville's Main Street. "But I can tell you that my husband feels like he sold us out." He plans to back Bevin; she's sticking with McConnell.