For Democrats, the campaign to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been dark and full of terrors. Even though McConnell has one of the worst at-home popularity ratings of any sitting senator — with 36 percent of Kentucky voters approving of the job he did, compared to 54 percent disapproving, according to an April Public Policy Polling report — trying to find a candidate that can actually defeat him in Kentucky, a deeply red state, has proven to be a monumental task.
For a while, Ashley Judd seemed to be the best possible challenger to McConnell. With her wide name recognition, personal wealth, access to possible campaign funders and reputation as a political activist, she seemed to have checked off every box on the ideal candidate list. However, her progressive, extreme-left politics and Tennessee residency were thought to be liabilities in conservative-leaning Kentucky. Early and vicious mudslinging from the McConnell camp and a lack of support from national Democrats ultimately forced Judd to decide not to run.
Since Judd’s departure, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has been considered as a possible challenger to McConnell in 2014. Lundergan Grimes, 34, is a Lexington attorney and the daughter of a former state Democratic Party chairman. A pro-business, modest moderate, she won election in 2011 through her father’s deep fundraising network. With Lundergan Grimes’ announcement Monday that she will run for the Democratic nomination to be a senator from Kentucky, the general consensus across the nation has been that McConnell — the most powerful Republican in the Senate — has met his match.
“Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction. Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth. Kentucky is tired with the senior senator who has lost touch with Kentucky issues, voters and their values,” said Grimes at a news conference in Frankfort.
If elected, Lundergan Grimes would be the youngest senator in the 114th Congress, based on current candidates, by a factor of five years.
McConnell has been criticized over the last few years for focusing the Senate Republicans on solidly opposing the Obama administration instead of actually legislating. Shortly before the 2010 midterm elections, he went as far as to say during an interview with National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The Democrats have held majority control of the Senate since 2007. The 111th Congress, in which Democrats controlled both houses, produced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, an expansion of the Child Health Insurance Program, the Serve America Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The 112th and 113th Congresses, in which the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, became known as the “do-nothing Congresses.” The 112th passed the fewest public laws of any session of Congress, and the 113th is on track to take the title for second-fewest.
While the House is responsible for most of the Congresses’ inactivity, the filibuster — used almost fanatically by the Senate Republicans — helped to add friction to the legislative process.
McConnell doesn’t seem to be fazed by Lundergan Grimes’ run.
“Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama’s Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes, and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas,” McConnell said in a statement about Grimes’ decision.
“The next sixteen 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,” said McConnell. “Together we’ve invested a lot to ensure that Kentucky’s voice in the U.S. Senate is heard from the front of the line rather than the back-bench and I intend to earn the support to keep it there.”
Polling and ‘playing the spoiler’
McConnell may have reason to worry, however. Despite only having a 50 percent name recognition in Kentucky, polling of likely state voters shows a virtual tie between McConnell and Lundergan Grimes. In composite polling, McConnell leads Lundergan Grimes by 4.5 percentage points, with Wenzel Strategies polling giving McConnell a 7-point lead and Public Policy Polling calling the race even at 45 points each. According to a SurveyUSA poll, 34 percent of all registered voters have said that they will vote against McConnell no matter who the challenger is, compared to just 17 percent that said they will vote for him no matter what.
As more people learn of Lundergan Grimes, the race promises to tighten. But McConnell is a renowned political trench-fighter — three of his five elections to the Senate were decided by less than 6 percentage points. McConnell is known for fighting dirty and striking his opponents early, often and hard. More importantly, McConnell has a war chest worth millions of dollars, with channels to out-of-state donors readily available to him.
Recently, national Republicans have started to connect Lundergan Grimes to the president, hoping that the president’s unpopularity will affect her.
“Just last year, Alison Lundergan Grimes stood proudly at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Barack Obama, who has followed through on his promise to destroy the coal industry; in essence declared a war on the state of Kentucky and the middle class families who call it home,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Collins said in a statement. “Kentuckians have absolutely no reason to send Alison Lundergan Grimes to Washington to help pass the policies of a president whom they adamantly oppose and to elect a liberal Senate Leader who declared, ‘coal makes us sick.’”
In this, the Democrats get a free shot at McConnell’s expense. First, Lundergan Grimes has nothing to lose — she is not up for re-election until 2015 and she does not have to step down as secretary of state to run for the Senate. Second, a tough fight for McConnell means that the top Republican senator will be unavailable to campaign or fundraise for other Senate races. Finally, the external fundraising that will be needed for McConnell’s defense will mean that less money is available for other Senate races.
As seen in Mark Sanford’s defeat of Elizabeth Colbert Busch in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District race earlier this year, a damaged, unpopular Republican can win handily against a popular Democrat in a red district. As such, with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House, Lundergan Grimes is the underdog in this race. But she is in a position to play spoiler for the Senate Republicans.
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