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
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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.

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