LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes often points out that Election Day is 15 months away, but she demonstrated on a recent visit to the state fair that there’s no preseason when you are trying to oust the minority leader of the U.S. Senate. “If there’s three reasons why Kentuckians, especially our seniors, need access to affordable health care coverage, you just have to look over to the right, where you see the doughnut burger, the chili cheesesteak, and the covered french fries,” Grimes told a reporter. Within hours, the alleged insult to Kentucky’s food and Kentucky’s seniors—in defense of Obamacare, no less—was a conservative-media sensation and posted on rival Mitch McConnell’s website.
At age 34, less than two years into her first public office as secretary of state, Grimes is taking on a wily 71-year-old veteran who is determined to both keep his own seat and help his party net enough victories to win a promotion to Senate majority leader. Tough is the word Kentucky pols in both parties often use to describe her. But tough is also a good description of the task she has undertaken.
The contest is already a full-blown test of will and rhetoric for Grimes, who wants the race to be all about McConnell, and McCon-nell, who wants it to be all about President Obama. Kentucky GOP Chairman Steve Robertson says the race boils down to one question: “Do you want it to be easier for President Obama to enact his agenda, or do you want it to be more difficult?”
Obama won only four counties in Kentucky last fall, and his overall vote was less than 38 percent. McConnell, who so far is handily fending off a tea-party primary challenger, will have a massive war chest—one Democrat likened it to “a bottomless cup of coffee”—to finance a trademark hard-hitting campaign. And while Democrats dominate state offices, Kentucky lately has resisted sending them to Washington.
Still, Grimes brings certain advantages to the race, including a shrewd political family deeply rooted in the state, as well as gender and generational contrasts that could work in her favor. Then there’s McConnell’s unpopularity: Two polls by Democratic firms in the past few months put his job-approval rating among Kentuckians in the 30s, with disapproval in the 50s. And simply by taking him on, Grimes will become a magnet for national attention and resources.
Just last week, EMILY’s List endorsed her, sending out four fundraising e-mails for her in three days. While the endorsement showcases Grimes’s support for abortion rights, a prerequisite for winning the group’s backing, it’s also a potentially valuable asset, given McConnell’s access to money. “She needs as much support as she can get from wherever she can get it,” says Fred Yang, a pollster who worked for all of McConnell’s general-election opponents from 1990 to 2008.
Running for the Senate as a Democrat in a red state hostile to your party’s president is a delicate art that has produced mixed results. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas lost in 2010 even though she chaired the Agriculture Committee, and many see Mark Pryor headed down the same path in the same state this year. Claire McCaskill didn’t appear with Obama when he visited Missouri last year and broke with the president by supporting a cap on federal spending, yet she might have lost her seat if she hadn’t faced the feckless Todd Akin. Joe Manchin won a 2010 special election in West Virginia after literally shooting a copy of a cap-and-trade bill in a campaign ad, and was reelected in 2012 after saying he wasn’t sure he’d vote for Obama. Jon Tester of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota campaigned for a balanced-budget amendment and against agriculture regulation, and both eked out victories in 2012.
Grimes began the distancing process at her July kickoff. “I don’t always agree with the president,” she said. “I think he is wrong on coal. I think we need to cut the wasteful spending and pass a balanced-budget amendment. And I think that there are things in the Affordable Care Act which we … must fix,” such as reducing its burdens on business. But she spent most of her speech attacking McConnell as central to “the disease of dysfunction” afflicting Washington.
The campaign is running a tight ship so far; even Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan, a former state legislator and party chairman with close ties to Bill Clinton, is under wraps (“I’m a disciplined father,” he said, declining to be interviewed). But Grimes did take a few questions last week at the Kentucky Farm Bureau ham breakfast, including one about the national spotlight on the race. “This race is about Kentucky,” she declared. That is a key point, says John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who helped Kay Hagan unseat Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina’s 2008 Senate race, in part by casting Dole as someone who had “gone Washington.” Because Grimes holds state office and has no voting record, he says, she’ll be able to define herself as a “Kentucky Democrat.”
There’s always the chance Grimes’s short, Kentucky-centric career will trip her up. “If I have any fears, it would be in the debate,” says veteran state strategist Jim Cauley. But he and other Grimes supporters are more convinced that her youth and gender will be advantages against McConnell, who is aiming for a sixth term. They note she is a business lawyer accustomed to controversy, an aggressive politician who took on the Democratic governor’s choice for secretary of state, won the primary, and secured the job.
That makes two statewide campaigns on her résumé, compared with none for McConnell when he ran for the Senate as a county official in 1984. But this time, Grimes is competing for a Washington job that comes with national party baggage. She can count on McConnell to make it as hard as possible to unload.