LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — It's Mitch McConnell's turn to unify his party.
The U.S. Senate minority leader is accustomed to rolling into November with a united party behind him while Democrats scrambled to rally around a challenger to the powerful five-term senator. Now McConnell finds himself on the other side as Democrats have rallied behind Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republicans are calling for unity following a bruising primary.
McConnell easily defeated tea party-backed GOP challenger Matt Bevin on Tuesday. But more than 30 percent of Republicans voted against McConnell. With recent polls showing a razor-thin race between McConnell and Grimes, the question now is whether Bevin supporters will vote for McConnell in November.
"I'll vote for the Democrat if Bevin loses," 46-year-old Mike Lotspeich said shortly after voting for Bevin in Boone County. "I will vote to get him out. Whoever has the best chance to beat him. If I can't get rid of Mitch McConnell, I'll never get him replaced."
But voters like 62-year-old Sallie McLane in Union voted for Bevin fully expecting him to lose. They just wanted to send a message to McConnell.
"(McConnell) needs to be more conservative," she said, adding that she would vote for McConnell in November because she would never vote for a Democrat.
Assuming McConnell can convert Bevin backers, Tuesday's raw turnout numbers suggest he'll still have his work cut out for him. About 350,000 Republicans cast ballots in the mud-filled, cash-heavy race between him and Bevin, the most widely covered contest this spring in Kentucky and the nation.
Spending little compared to McConnell, Grimes pulled in well over 300,000 of the more than 400,000 votes cast by Democrats.
But senior McConnell campaign adviser Josh Holmes said Kentucky Republicans have a history of rallying around their nominee. Holmes pointed to a 2010 poll that said 43 percent of GOP voters would not vote for Rand Paul after the Republican primary. But exit polling on election day found 91 percent of Republican voters cast a ballot for Paul.
"Bruising primaries are hardly something new," Holmes said. "No question we still have some work to do after the primary is over. But we feel ultimately folks are going to come home and will see sort of a unification of that vote behind Sen. McConnell."
Bevin has said repeatedly that McConnell would lose the general election because the Kentucky Republican party is divided. And he refused to sign a pledge to support the McConnell in November if the senator won. But some of his biggest supporters have urged Republicans to rally around McConnell.
"We congratulate Senator McConnell on his victory and urge Republicans in Kentucky to come together to defeat Alison Lundergan Grimes," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservative Fund, which spent millions of dollars backing Bevin.
McConnell began the process of unifying the party Tuesday night when he congratulated Bevin and asked his supporters to give him a round of applause.
"Matt brought a lot of passion and tenacity to this race, and he made me a stronger candidate," McConnell said. "A tough race is behind us, and it's time to unite. To my opponent's supporters, I hope you'll join me in the months ahead and know that your fight is my fight."
But after months of negative campaign ads, Bevin was not ready to endorse McConnell on Tuesday. Still, he said he would not support Grimes.
"The only chance for our nation ... is the solutions must come from within the Republican Party," he said.
Grimes, in an attempt to woo scorned GOP voters, portrayed herself as an independent Kentucky woman Tuesday night, saying she would answer to the people of Kentucky, not the president.
"(McConnell) claims Kentucky will be lost if we trade in his seat for a Kentucky woman he believes will sit on the back bench," Grimes said, referring to comments McConnell has made saying he was assigned to the back of the Senate chamber when he was first elected. "No Kentucky woman, Mitch McConnell, will sit on the back bench."
Beam reported from Union and Lexington. Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report from Louisville.