A national pro-choice group announced Tuesday morning that it was running ads in Kentucky blasting U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for opposing a Democratic end-around of the recent Supreme Court decision dealing with contraceptives.
Less than three hours later, McConnell's campaign made the same announcement.
McConnell's decision to welcome criticism from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group generally identified with protecting abortion rights, and Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes' relative quietness on the so-called Hobby Lobby court decision demonstrate the balancing act facing Grimes as she works to win female voters while avoiding the pitfalls Democrats often face in Kentucky on social and cultural issues such as abortion.
Grimes' profile as a pro-choice Democrat comes with advantages — a candidate with the backing of EMILY's List can do things like shatter fundraising records, as Kentucky's secretary of state announced this week that she had done. But Republicans think Grimes' stance on abortion also dooms her chances of election, leaving her unable to reconcile socially conservative voters with a socially liberal national party.
"Whether it's Harry Reid or NARAL, their support for Grimes is a double-edge sword because while the money always helps, it also reminds voters that there's a reason folks on the far left are backing her," said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The thrust of NARAL's involvement in the Kentucky Senate race this week was not abortion. The group's ad centered on Republican opposition to a Democratic bill that would undo the June Hobby Lobby ruling. In its decision, the court said companies did not have to provide health insurance that covered birth control options, as mandated by the federal health care law, if doing so went against their religious beliefs.
In the wake of that ruling, Democrats saw an opening to target many enraged female voters and soften a national political environment that favors Republicans in the fall elections.
The ruling "has a lot of resonance with women," said Karen Finney, a longtime national Democratic spokeswoman and the former host of MSNBC's Disrupt With Karen Finney.
While Grimes has made no secret of her focus on the 53 percent of Kentucky voters who are women, she has been relatively quiet on an issue that Washington Democrats are convinced can help them blunt losses in November.
"I support the right of all American women to have full access to contraception, and respect the exemption of churches from providing this service, if it is against their teachings," Grimes said in a statement after the court's decision. "While I think the Supreme Court got it wrong today regarding corporations, in cases where employers are found to be exempt from requirements that they provide such coverage, affordable insurance should be made available."
That kind of hedging, political analysts and Republicans say, is a result of two considerations: First, Grimes has to be wary of being seen as a champion of the law Republicans call Obamacare; and second, she has to constantly balance the desire to win women with the reality that Kentucky is a socially conservative state.
Erika West, political director for NARAL, told the Herald-Leader this week that while the group was "unapologetically" in favor of abortion rights, the group's focus in Kentucky is on other issues on which it thinks McConnell has failed women.
West said the group was not concerned about hurting Grimes because national polling shows that 70 percent of Americans think abortion should be a choice between a woman and her doctor.
"We don't believe that's any different in Kentucky," West said. "It's not a risky position for a candidate to take. Mitch McConnell is actually the person who's sitting in a risky place right now."
Polling of Kentucky voters suggests otherwise. An NBC News/Marist poll of likely Kentucky voters from early May found that 67 percent of Kentuckians think abortion should be illegal. And a state poll conducted by The Polling Company on behalf of National Right to Life last month found that 55 percent of respondents would vote for a hypothetical candidate with views on abortion similar to McConnell's, compared to 35 percent who said they would vote for a hypothetical candidate with views like Grimes'.
Those numbers haven't been lost on McConnell, and in May he held a news conference in Washington to push for a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
When The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, asked the Grimes campaign how she would vote on McConnell's proposal, press secretary Charly Norton replied with a one-sentence answer: "Alison opposes late-term abortions."
The publication reported that the campaign did not answer follow-up questions about how she would have voted on the proposal.
Not long after, Grimes clarified to the National Journal that she supported abortion rights, telling the Washington publication: "I come from a family of five women. I would never pretend to tell one of my sisters what to do with their body and I don't want the federal government doing that either. ... When it comes to choice, I believe, should a woman have to make that decision, it's between herself, her doctor, and her God."
On McConnell's proposal, Grimes said: "I think you always put the health, life and safety of the mother first, should that decision have to be made. I'm not for moving backwards the principles the Supreme Court has set forward."
While a majority of Kentucky voters might not agree with Grimes on abortion, Democrats think far more do agree that companies shouldn't have the right to limit insurance coverage for contraception.
In the case of NARAL's modest five-figure ad buy for Louisville and Lexington, Finney argued "the specifics actually matter."
"The ad was targeted to women voters who with whom this message would resonate," said Finney.
But McConnell's campaign immediately seized on the ad in the vein of guilt by association.
"If you need to know who Alison Lundergan Grimes intends to represent if elected, consider that radical abortion groups are now descending upon Kentucky to run ads on her behalf," the campaign said in a news release.
The Grimes campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said "the fact that Alison Lundergan Grimes cannot even support Sen. McConnell's common-sense efforts to curb late-term abortions shows Kentuckians that her agenda aligns with President Obama and extreme pro-abortion groups in Washington."
State Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, called NARAL "an extreme organization" and warned that Grimes "will be tied to the positions that that organization holds."
"Any organization that holds extreme positions when they come into a media market, the candidate runs the risk of having it backfire on them," Adams said. "It certainly does not help her."
Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said Kentucky's swing voters tended to be "socially conservative but economically liberal."
For Grimes to succeed, Voss said, she needs to keep the focus on "lunch pail" issues and away from social or cultural issues.
"Outside groups who shift voter attention away from economic issues can hinder Grimes, even if they do so while saying nice things about her or bad things about her opponent," Voss said.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.