McConnell’s Democratic Challenger Faces an Uphill Fight

Michael Catalini
National Journal

Ask Kentuckians, and they'll tell you how Alison Lundergan Grimes could not be more different than her 2014 opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

There are the superficial differences: He's a man; she's a woman. He's 71; she's 34. He's the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history; she was elected as secretary of state in 2011.

But the real contrast—and the pending David and Goliath nature of the race—can be seen in the campaigns.

Grimes, the underdog daughter of a former state Democratic Party chairman, kicked off her campaign Monday, starting the event about 20 minutes late, standing before a recycled "Secretary of State" sign and answering just two questions from the media. No campaign website was set up, and her campaign staff is still being finalized, according to Kentucky Democratic insiders.

McConnell, by contrast, has raised roughly $9 million for the race and has already run a Web ad attempting to link Grimes to President Obama, a political albatross in ruby-red Kentucky.

The question to be answered is whether Grimes can make the leap from Bluegrass State politics to a wider stage, where the glaring spotlight of a nationalized Senate race awaits her. Kentucky Democrats bristled at the notion, arguing that a campaign's start is a Washington fascination that will matter little as the race heats up.

"All that proves is that people in Kentucky are running the campaign, not inside-the-Beltway folks," said Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons, who said he has not made up his mind whether he'll work for Grimes's campaign.

Asked why the campaign's kickoff seemed rushed, even after four months of consideration and what Grimes called "due diligence," her father, Jerry Lundergan, dodged the question. But he suggested Grimes could beat McConnell.

"I'm very proud of my daughter," Lundergan said. "I think she'll make a great United States senator from the state of Kentucky."

But some Democrats in Kentucky, while supportive, were caught by surprise. Nathan Smith, a Democratic fundraiser who's hosted Hillary Clinton and said he wants to host Grimes's first fundraiser at his home, talked to Grimes on Thursday. She told him that if she announced before July 4, it would likely mean she was passing on a run.

"We're gonna go after somebody because they didn't have a slick sign behind her?" Smith asked. "This is a folksy kind of deal. She agonized over this. She did not make her decision until yesterday afternoon."

The personal nature of the campaign is cutting both ways. Grimes adopted a populist approach as she launched her campaign and cast McConnell as a busted cog in the machinery of Washington.

"I agree with thousands of Kentuckians that Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction," Grimes said at the campaign kickoff. "That Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his net worth."

Grimes also enters the race as a savior to Democrats. After actress Ashley Judd decided not to run earlier this year, the bench of candidates thinned quickly, and some Democrats worried that without an A-list candidate, the vulnerable McConnell could cruise to a sixth term.

Democrats view Kentucky as a legitimate pickup opportunity, citing polls that suggest McConnell may have difficulty. A Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling survey from May shows Grimes and McConnell even in a head-to-head contest at 45 percent each. A GOP poll conducted by Wenzel strategies showed McConnell up by 7 points over Grimes, at 46 to 39, according to The New York Times.

"She was the last remaining first-tier candidate with name recognition in the race," said former Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Miller. "But ultimately this race is gonna be about things that will be beyond her control. McConnell's gonna make this race about Obama."

McConnell, to some extent, is already obliging. He called Grimes "President Obama's Kentucky candidate," a theme carried over from a Web ad launched earlier this year. He also jabbed her over the president's recent announcement regarding coal regulations, linking Grimes with what McConnell and other Republicans are calling a "war on coal."

"The next 16 months will provide a great opportunity for Kentuckians to contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government rationed health care with someone who works everyday to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas," McConnell said in a statement.

Beating McConnell, though, will be a slog. He had $8.6 million cash on hand at the end of the last quarter, according to the Federal Elections Commission, and he hired former Ron Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton earlier this year.

So far, FEC records do not show a campaign committee registered for Grimes. But Grimes has proven herself to be an able fundraiser. In 2011 she defeated businessman Bill Johnson in the contest for secretary of state. She raised nearly half a million dollars in the final months of the campaign, compared with Johnson's $63,000 in the same period, according to the Herald-Leader in Lexington.

Her family background may help. Trained as a lawyer at American University, Grimes comes from an influential political family with strong ties to the Clintons. Her father, a Lexington businessman who served as chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, helped Hillary Clinton raise nearly $1 million in Kentucky during her failed presidential bid in 2008. Earlier this year, Grimes met with Bill Clinton at an Owensboro, Ky., event. Democratic insiders say the former president encouraged her to consider running.

But for Democrats, getting Grimes into the race was the easy part. It's beating McConnell that is difficult—a victory that has eluded them since 1984. Yet Bluegrass State Democrats think they know McConnell's playbook by now.

"He wants this to be a national campaign," Emmons said. "He wants it to be about the plight of coal. He wants it to be about Barack Obama. This needs to be a campaign conducted and run by and for Kentuckians."