The campaign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to inflict maximum damage this week after an audio recording revealed that Democrat nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes didn't mention coal as promised when speaking at a fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Grimes' campaign was forced to play defense throughout the week on the issue, but political analysts and Republican operatives said the real harm to Grimes could come later in the race, when what Grimes and Reid did say makes its way into McConnell's campaign ads.
In the 17-minute recording, which Politico obtained from an unnamed source, Grimes repeatedly refers to Reid as "leader" and Reid describes Grimes as a "perfect candidate" and "something special."
"So Alison, I'm not only depending on you, and my 54 Democratic senators are depending on you, but our country is depending on you," Reid said. "I say that as unequivocally as I can."
Those remarks appear to play into the hands of McConnell, who has worked overtime to portray Grimes as a rubber stamp for Reid and President Barack Obama.
"This is not an issue that's going to fade away, and it's not just about her abandoning Kentucky's coal economy," said Billy Piper, a former top aide and longtime ally of McConnell's. "It's about her being a doctrinaire liberal willing to do anything to get the approval of national liberal leaders."
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Grimes' decision to avoid mentioning her displeasure with Obama's proposed environmental regulations will have little lasting impact on the campaign because few would expect Grimes to "berate" Democrats trying to help her campaign. In the long run, however, Voss said the recording "will matter because they did McConnell's job for him, making clear the close ties between Grimes and the Democratic Party's leader in the Senate, something that Grimes had been coy about in public."
For months, and perhaps most visibly in her victory speech on primary night, Grimes has fought to convince voters she would be an "independent" voice for Kentucky, saying in one of her first ads that she would not answer to the president.
Having an audio recording of Grimes interacting with national Democrats will help McConnell undercut that argument, Voss said.
"McConnell now has audio evidence that Grimes has a cozy relationship with national Democratic leaders, which will make it much harder for Grimes to pitch herself as an independent voice for Kentucky," he said.
Voss added: "In particular, the existence of an audio recording gives the McConnell campaign some great material for creating new advertisements. The references to 'Leader Reid' and his army coming to Kentucky to help elect Grimes sounds tailor-made for the sort of quickie TV ads that McConnell's team needs to produce."
To that end, Josh Holmes, McConnell's senior adviser, suggested that the recording of Grimes would soon be coming to Kentucky's airwaves.
"Unscripted, candid thoughts from Alison Lundergan Grimes are basically collector's items at this point, so I think it's safe to say this audio will be omnipresent for the next few months," Holmes said.
Promise kept or broken?
Grimes has consistently tried to position herself as not only friendly to coal, but more of an ally than McConnell. And when the EPA released its new proposed regulations on carbon emissions last week, the Grimes campaign hammered Obama, seeing an opportunity to put distance between Grimes and a president deeply unpopular in Kentucky.
Grimes' campaign spokeswoman said in the days leading up to the Washington, D.C. fundraiser that Grimes was "absolutely livid" about the new environmental regulations and would "use the event" to tell Reid about her displeasure.
After the audio tape was released Monday evening, the Grimes' campaign scrambled to explain that Grimes and Reid had a "private conversation" in which Grimes kept her promise to "share the stories of how Kentuckians are hurting and demand that the Senate take action to invest in clean coal technology."
"We definitely did what we said we were going to do," said Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst.
Reid, in his own statement, said Grimes "has spoken against the president's proposed EPA rules to me many times, including last Thursday." Reid added in the statement: "In fact, she has spoken with me about protecting Kentucky families by opposing the president's EPA rule far more times than Sen. McConnell has, since Sen. McConnell has not raised the issue with me once or sought to meet with me to discuss his ideas on this issue."
McConnell's camp wasn't buying the explanation, arguing that Grimes clearly promised voters that she would stand up to national Democrats at the fundraiser.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes got caught intentionally deceiving Kentuckians, and perhaps the most concerning part of it is that rather than just come clean, she decided to make up another fictional story," Holmes said.
When asked Tuesday if the Grimes campaign was concerned the recording might have damaged Grimes' credibility with voters, spokeswoman Charly Norton responded: "This is just another distraction from a Washington politician who has failed to save one coal job in 30 years."