FRANKFORT — Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced Monday that she would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014.
Grimes' entry into the race sets up what is expected to be an expensive, bruising contest between a wily, seasoned veteran who leads Republicans in the U.S. Senate and an emerging star in the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Grimes, a Lexington lawyer in her first term as secretary of state, has been conducting "due diligence" about entering the race since late April.
"I'm here today to tell you that I have met with my supporters. We have had a great conversation and determined and decided that we can make the best move, the best difference in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, by running for U.S. Senate," Grimes told reporters after meeting privately with several supporters at a Frankfort office building near Democratic Party headquarters.
Grimes, 34, announced her intentions with her husband, Andrew Grimes, and former Democratic governors Julian Carroll and Martha Layne Collins by her side.
Grimes took only two questions from the media, including one asking her position on a federal overhaul of health insurance laws pushed by President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.
"We are not changing our president, but we can change how Washington represents Kentucky," she responded.
Grimes, who has been recruited to challenge McConnell by state and national Democrats since actress Ashley Judd passed on running, said she would form her campaign within the next two weeks.
She took several swipes at McConnell on Monday, calling him a politically vulnerable obstructionist. She said recent television ads by a Republican group that claim Grimes is a "cheerleader" for Obama are driven by McCon nell's fear of losing his 30-year grip on power.
"This Kentucky woman does not believe the voters of Kentucky will be fooled," Grimes said.
McConnell, who has been in the Senate since January 1985, issued a statement calling Grimes "courageous" for "accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama's Kentucky candidate."
"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 every day to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas," McConnell said. "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."
McConnell, 71, already has raised more than $13 million for his re-election bid and had $8.6 million cash on hand at the end of March.
"I'm no stranger to being an underdog," Grimes said Monday.
Grimes is expected to get the support of big-name Democrats, especially former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They are close to Grimes' father, former state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan.
Lundergan said he did not know how much money his daughter's campaign would need to raise, but "she will be OK."
National political pundits said after Grimes' announcement that McConnell was still the favorite, but many predicted a tight, tough race.
"This will be the nastiest race in the country," wrote Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post.
The New York Times, on its FiveThirtyEight blog, said McConnell was likely to win re-election because of Obama's unpopularity in the state and McConnell's huge money advantage. But McConnell "is unlikely to sail to victory" since Grimes has strong ties to state and national political leaders, the newspaper wrote.
Its analysis of four partisan polls taken in the race (three by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling and one by the GOP-leaning Wenzel Strategies) suggest a relatively tight race, with McConnell leading by an average of 4.5 percentage points.
Meanwhile, the candidates' partisan supporters predicted victory and shed light on what might be the campaign's major talking points.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the race a toss-up.
He said committee polling done by Fred Yang of Hart Research showed 62 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove of McConnell's job performance while 35 percent approve.
Dan Logsdon, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said Grimes "will be a strong, positive candidate for the Democratic Party who will work for Kentucky families and end Mitch McConnell's 30-year legacy of just working for himself."
Republicans remained eager to portray Grimes as a liberal.
Gail Russell, a board member of Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said Grimes was "an ambidextrous politician who will sell out Kentucky in exchange for national liberal support."
Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, noted that Grimes last year "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."
Kentuckians aren't going to trade McConnell "for a rookie rubber stamp for the Obama agenda," said Kelsey Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Republican Party.
It was uncertain what type of Democratic primary election Grimes might face in May.
Other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates for the U.S. Senate include former Miss America Heather French Henry of Louisville, Lexington attorney and former state Democratic Party chairman Bill Garmer, and environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald of Louisville.
Henry and Garmer said Monday that they would not enter the race. FitzGerald said he had not decided whether to run.
Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry, Louisville musician and music promoter Bennie J. Smith and University of Louisville communications professor Greg Leichty have said they would seek the Democratic nomination, but none has a statewide following.
McConnell also could have an opponent in May's Republican primary election.
"There will absolutely be a Tea Party candidate," said Tea Party activist David Adams of Jessamine County. Asked to name that candidate, Adams said, "We will let the sacrificial lamb have her day in the sun and we'll get back to you."
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.