Shutdown holds potential, pitfalls for Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes

syoungman@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2013 

WASHINGTON — As the clock ticked toward a federal government shutdown, Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates went to work Monday looking for whatever political leverage they could pull from the impasse.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes were positioning themselves to maximize whatever gains could be made, or to minimize whatever fallout might come, from a shutdown that looked increasingly likely Monday evening.

Grimes and her campaign sought to tie McConnell and his long tenure in office to the Washington dysfunction that polls indicate Americans are tired of seeing. Meanwhile, McConnell's people saw an opportunity to paint Grimes as defending President Barack Obama's signature legislation.

Republicans were widely blamed after the last government closing in 1995, and President Bill Clinton took advantage as he rolled to reelection the following year. Democrats are hoping for a repeat in 2014.

Through the course of the day, Grimes' campaign released several statements accusing "Senator Gridlock," the nickname she has given McConnell, of "acting like a spoiled Washington politician."

"Mitch McConnell only cares about whether one person receives their paycheck this week — himself," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said in a statement.

But McConnell's aides argued that he would end up the beneficiary of the current Washington food fight because it would tie Grimes to the unpopularity of Obama and his health care law.

"Alison Lundergan Grimes decided to position herself next to Barack Obama and Harry Reid on the side of shutting down the government instead of delaying Obamacare implementation," said Josh Holmes, a senior adviser to McConnell's campaign. "You sort of have to hand it to her for consistently admitting she'll vote with President Obama and Harry Reid regardless of how unpopular that is with Kentuckians."

As he has throughout the year, McConnell faced a two-front assault Monday as he looked for ways to avert a shutdown.

While Grimes and her Democratic allies assailed McConnell for being party to forcing a shutdown, the senator's enemies on his political right assailed him for making efforts to arrange a one-week extension of government funding that would not defund the health care law.

"Sen. Mitch McConnell has a habit of parachuting in to a critical issue at the very last moment to undermine conservative leverage," said Daniel Horowitz, policy director of Madison Project, a Tea Party group that has backed Louisville businessman Matt Bevin's primary bid against McConnell.

More than a year before Kentuckians go to the polls, however, it will take time to see who the political winners and losers are if the federal government closes down.

Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the political effect of the budget impasse would depend largely on how long a shutdown lasts, and which services and benefits are affected.

As long as McConnell is concerned about his right flank, he faces a "lose-lose" situation if he is seen as helping to engineer a compromise, Gross said.

"He's still worrying about this primary challenge, so he has to be a bit concerned of not being in the center of a compromise as he was in some of these previous confrontations," Gross said.

For Grimes, the path to political capital is more obvious.

McConnell's role as an incumbent makes it easier for Grimes to tie him to a Washington that appears broken, Gross said.

"That kind of story line is what the Democrats are going to try and sell against McConnell," Gross said. "And this feeds into that."

The timing has been ill-suited for McConnell.

Campaigns had until midnight Monday to file quarterly fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission, and the last days leading up to the quarter are usually fundraising marathons for the candidates.

While Grimes just returned from a lucrative fundraising swing that included a stop in Los Angeles, where she reportedly raised $1 million, McConnell has had to cancel some fundraisers.

Holmes said McConnell would report a "strong quarter," but he did lose the opportunity to raise some cash while submerged in the Washington battle.

"Obviously, it displaces a lot of events," Holmes said. "But he's got a day job here we take extraordinarily seriously."

Sam Youngman: Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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