U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes emerged victorious from their respective primaries Tuesday night, setting up a bruising battle this fall as Grimes tries to deny McConnell a sixth term.
McConnell handily dispatched Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who won about 36 percent of the Republican vote. Grimes won about 76 percent of the vote over three Democrats who did not raise or spend money on their campaigns.
The primary winners used their victory speeches to outline the cases they will take to Kentuckians beginning Wednesday, as Grimes vies to become the state's first female senator and McConnell hopes to claim the title of majority leader in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul boiled down McConnell's central message in a video address to supporters gathered at McConnell's victory party in Louisville: "Obama needs Alison Grimes. Kentucky needs Mitch McConnell."
McConnell, having thanked Bevin for "bringing a lot of tenacity and passion" to the race, wasted little time in continuing his efforts to tie Grimes to President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in the state.
McConnell told the crowd that Grimes "is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be."
"Barack Obama's candidates preach independence, but they practice loyalty above all else," McConnell said. "And tonight I'm confident of this: Kentuckians will not be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama's candidate."
Grimes, addressing her supporters in Lexington after McConnell spoke, pushed back hard on McConnell's charges, saying "Mitch McConnell would have you believe that President Obama is on Kentucky's 2014 election ballot."
"Sen. McConnell, this race is between you and me," Grimes said. "That's the name that appears on the ballot."
Grimes emphasized that, if elected, she would "answer to the people of this state; I won't answer to the president no matter who he or she might be."
Grimes has made attracting female voters central to her campaign thus far, prompting McConnell to incorporate women into almost every facet of his remarks. He heaped praise on his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, his late mother and three women who the senator described as having been duped by "Obamacare."
In warming up the crowd, Chao spoke of McConnell potentially rising to become majority leader of the U.S. Senate, saying "he will lead the Senate with honor, and he will hold the Obama administration accountable for the damage they have done."
Grimes, calling for an increase in the minimum wage and assailing McConnell's voting record when it comes to the Fair Pay Act and Violence Against Women Act, told the crowd that she is a "strong Kentucky woman who is an independent thinker."
"Together we will make history, and Kentucky will finally get a senator who puts people above partisanship," Grimes said.
Bevin appeared upbeat in his concession remarks, but even though his tone was positive, his words were at times more biting than conciliatory.
He called on supporters to take "the high road," saying that "if we return fire for fire, then we will burn our great nation to the ground, and we deserve better than that."
Bevin said he would not support the Democratic platform over the Republican platform, saying "there is zero chance that the solutions for what ails us is going to come from the Democratic Party."
Still, he stopped well short of endorsing McConnell.
The contentious primary, in which McConnell repeatedly attacked Bevin as untrustworthy, appeared fresh on Bevin's mind.
"We know, and we're not going to soon forget that we have been lied about," Bevin said. "We know that we have been boxed out. We know that we've been ridiculed. We know that we've been mocked and scorned, often by people who've never even met us."
McConnell must now attempt to win back the more than 120,000 Republicans who backed Bevin on Tuesday.
State Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said at McConnell's victory party that he has no doubt that supporters of Bevin, who he said ran a good campaign, will get on board with McConnell for the fall race.
"They are not going to be for somebody who's going to be part and parcel of the Obama administration," he said. "They're gonna be out against Barack Obama and anybody who's attached to him."
Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said Tuesday that he doesn't expect the 36 percent of Republicans who pulled the lever for Bevin to be an enduring problem for McConnell.
"When a candidate like McConnell or Grimes goes into a primary with the polls clearly showing that they will win, and yet supporters of their opponents show up anyway, it's a sign that many of those people are committed to the electoral process and they're likely to show up again in the general election," Voss said. "They're still Republicans or Democrats, and with the options limited, they'll usually side with their own party. A Bevin supporter represents much more of an opportunity for McConnell than someone who doesn't bother to vote, and Grimes should have the inside track when trying to pick off the people who cast votes for other Democrats."
Supporters of the winning candidates showed no effects of a primary hangover, spoiling for a fight with the other side.
"If there was ever a time for a candidate to challenge Mitch McConnell, this is it," said Anne Joseph of Lexington. "(Grimes) is outstanding, and I think she will win."
At McConnell's party, Christy Ferko, 26, of Louisville, who has done social media work for McConnell, said she was "definitely confident with the senator's ability to carry the fall election."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.