The Contender

Will Alison Lundergan Grimes end the 30-year reign of Mitch McConnell?

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efore Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes decided to enter Kentucky’s Senate race last summer, the first-term secretary of state had been told to think again.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has spent three decades building a political machine known for burying people.

Grimes and her family members would be targets of vicious attack ads, confidants said. Facing McConnell would cripple a future that included a potential run for Kentucky governor, friends told her.

“People certainly did warn her about the kind of false and mean-spirited attacks that Sen. McConnell would run,” says Jonathan Hurst, who is running Grimes’ Senate campaign.

“But I think by in large a lot more people said to Alison, you can unite Democrats and independents, you are somebody who can save the [state] Democratic House and you’re a leader on issues we care about such as the minimum wage.”

A year and a half later, GOP operatives and Beltway pundits alike have pounded Grimes’ candidacy. Critics claim she is a novice who lacks basic instincts, too cocooned from the press and too wedded to talking points.

The worst of those attributes were replayed ad nauseam after the Senate debate when Grimes refused to say if she voted for President Obama.

“Our Constitution grants, here in Kentucky, the constitutional right for privacy of the ballot box, for a secret ballot,” Grimes said during the lone debate with McConnell. “I am not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side, or for members of the media.”

Yet Grimes is inches away from defeating the most powerful Republican senator and in the next week could make Kentucky history.

Fueled by grassroots supporters and a well-connected Democratic fundraising network, Grimes has outraised McConnell in most campaign finance reports.

McConnell’s own unpopularity has also helped Grimes stay in the race during this cycle by making this election a referendum on his time in office.

After a series of public polls showed McConnell opening up a small lead, a Bluegrass Polls released in mid-October found Grimes leading McConnell by two points.

The survey found 57 percent of Kentuckians agreed with what has been Grimes’ chief attack line on the trail: “McConnell has been in office for 30 years and it’s time for him to be replaced by someone else.”

But McConnell has accumulated as much in political acumen as the $28 million he’s raised in campaign cash. The senator understood early on the best way to buttress his personal negatives in a time where Congress’ overall ratings are in the basement is to give voters a better target.

Side-by-side, President Obama’s favorability makes McConnell appear to a wide-range of Kentuckians as the necessary conservative roadblock. Where national Democrats lambast McConnell for being the architect of gridlock, he argues Bluegrass voters want a leader to stand up to the president’s agenda.

Polling backs up that sentiment as Obama’s approval numbers hover in the low-30s. For months the senator and his allies have spent tens of millions connecting Grimes to her party’s leader.

Obama remains Republicans’ best asset this cycle as the state Democratic Party is losing favor among more conservative, rural voters.

An Oct. 10 Gallup poll found Kentuckians who identify with or lean Democratic dropped from 52 percent to 39 percent over the past six years. The survey showed 45 percent now lean or affiliate with the Republicans during that same period.

The Obama presidency has also helped the GOP outpace Democrats in registration, adding approximately 142,300 voters to the rolls compared to just 10,570 by Democrats since November 2008.

“President Obama’s steadfast support of policies that people in this state don’t like has driven people away from the Democrats,” says Tres Watson, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant. “He is viewed as the standard bearer of his party, and the president is highly visible. So when people disagree with what he’s doing they assign that to the party he belongs.”

Democratic strategists credit Grimes’ stump for putting a wedge on McConnell with voters using a populist narrative about raising the wage rate to $10.10 an hour, tackling student loan reform and investing in U.S. infrastructure such as the Brent Spence Bridge.

Grimes is at her weakest, however, when she spends as much time explaining away Obama as telling voters about her own positions. In more than one TV ad, Grimes has tried to appeal to those voters by shooting guns, traveling into coal mines or denouncing “amnesty” and federal benefits for “illegal immigrants.”

Democratic strategists close to the Grimes campaign have credited her team for surviving the worst McConnell and Washington media observers have had to offer.

The race is tightening in this final stretch and Democratic groups have pledged to return to the airwaves on Grimes’ behalf.

Grimes picked up coveted endorsements from Kentucky’s two largest daily newspapers — The Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader — last week.

Watson says Republican circles are unbothered by the recent movement in the polls and do not believe a Grimes upset is possible. But even GOP consultants understand how McConnell’s three decades in office cut both ways.

“People talk about this being a GOP wave year, and as much as that might be true I think there tends to be an anti-incumbent mood that arises at this point,” Watson says. “There’s a feeling against incumbents at the moment and Sen. McConnell has been there 30 years, and in that time you tend to create more people who would like to create a change, which is keeping it close.”

The Grimes team appears somewhat relieved this grueling campaign is coming down to the ground game, where they’ve invested heavily. Officials have said they’re prepared to deploy well over 4,000 volunteers across Kentucky and have three-dozen offices within an hour drive of each other.

Grimes campaign officials boast how they’ve reached out to at least 400,000 voters through phone banking and knocking on doors, and that number is growing.

“Standing today $51 million in attack ads later in a state where the president lost by 23 points, being tied with the Republican Leader Mitch McConnell going into Election Day in public polls, that’s never been done before,” Hurst says. “It’s been a real surprise that a lot of the early encouragement that people gave us came true. They’ve been surprised to see just how strong of a campaigner she’s been.” ©

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