How to Beat the Senate Minority Leader

While Mitch McConnell wants to make his reelection race about President Obama, McConnell’s Democratic opponent wants to make it about him.

  McConnell ad: Ties Alison Grimes to Obama. McConnell ad: Ties Alison Grimes to Obama.  
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
See more stories about...
Jill Lawrence
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:50 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
7 REPUBLICANS ON STAGE
Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
2 days ago
THE LATEST

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.

Source:
×