Politics & Government

Analysis: Grimes faces tough odds in bid to unseat McConnell

After months of speculation, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes confirmed her intent on Monday to challenge Mitch McConnell for Senate.
After months of speculation, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes confirmed her intent on Monday to challenge Mitch McConnell for Senate. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes faces tough odds in her campaign to unseat U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but the race remains competitive, political pundits said Tuesday.

Grimes' biggest problem: She must carry the political ball-and-chain that is President Barack Obama as she runs against a five-term incumbent who already has more than $8 million in his campaign war chest.

In 2012, Obama collected just under 40 percent of the vote in Kentucky, winning only four counties. Voters in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District also booted Democrat Ben Chandler out of office, leaving Louisville's John Yarmuth as the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.

"That's a huge problem for Grimes," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that handicaps political races. "Mitch is not widely popular. But the bigger problem for Grimes is she is a Democrat in a federal race in a Republican-leaning state."

Rothenberg ranks the race as "Republican favored," but he said his staff is still analyzing the race in the aftermath of Grimes' announcement on Monday that she will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge McConnell next year.

Even if he alters the ranking early next week, Rothenberg said McConnell will still have the edge based solely on past voter history in Kentucky.

"This is not a toss up," he said. "But it will be a very closely watched race."

The nation will focus on Kentucky's Senate race for one key reason: McConnell is vulnerable.

The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling has repeatedly released polling in the last year that shows McConnell is the most unpopular senator in the nation. In its most recent poll, conducted in April, 54 percent of respondents disapproved of McConnell's job performance.

In a January Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll, 34 percent of respondents said they planned to vote against McConnell even though there was no major Democratic challenger at the time. Only 17 percent said they planned to vote for him, while 44 percent said they would wait to see who runs against him before deciding. Six percent said they were not sure.

In a brief appearance to announce her candidacy Monday, Grimes wasted no time trying to paint McConnell as an obstructionist who has worked to enrich himself rather than improve the lives of his constituents.

"I agree with thousands of Kentuckians, that Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction, that Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth," Grimes said.

Despite his poor approval rating, McConnell has many strengths, including prodigious fundraising, his reputation as a disciplined campaigner and his status as an incumbent who leads his party on national issues.

"He's going to run a good campaign," Rothenberg said. "You are not going to see him make one or two really huge mistakes."

On Tuesday, McConnell's campaign released an unconventional online video titled "What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?" It answers that question with "Not ready for prime time," "Sticks to party line," and "Left wing mime."

The video mocks Grimes by auto-tuning snippets of her speaking publicly and splicing them into an upbeat song. It shows her repeatedly saying the word "me" and speaking about herself in third person.

Meanwhile, Grimes has yet to set up a website for her campaign, leaving those around the nation who were excited about her entry into the race with no way to donate.

McConnell's most recent campaign finance report, released in March, showed he had raised about $12 million and had $8.6 million on hand. That's separate from the millions of dollars that political action committees are expected to pump into the race. In 2008, McConnell raised more than $20 million to defeat Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

"He clearly has the advantage of incumbency and he has a huge campaign war chest," said Dewey Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

Still, Rothenberg and others say Grimes has the ability to raise large amounts of money. National Democrats wishing to topple McConnell will undoubtedly contribute heavily to Grimes' campaign, they said.

Jerry Lundergan, Grimes' father and a former state Democratic Party chairman, also has a sizable national Rolodex that includes names like Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have been friends with the Lundergans for years.

The Clintons will bring star power to Grimes' campaign, said Danny Briscoe, a Democratic consultant with no ties to the campaign. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton carried 118 of 120 counties in Kentucky.

"He's going to try to make her Obama's girl," Briscoe said of McConnell. "The Clintons could help neutralize some of that. Bill Clinton is still one of the most popular politicians on the face of the planet."

Lundergan said Monday he will let smarter people than himself determine how much money his daughter will need for the race, but added that "she'll have enough."

Jonathan Hurst, a political consultant for Grimes, said Grimes will spend the next two weeks putting together a campaign staff and then concentrate on fund-raising.

What also may help Grimes is that she is 34 years old and female, a stark contrast to McConnell, who is 71.

"His age is getting to be a factor," Clayton said. "She can make the argument that times are changing. There is an old Kentucky and a new Kentucky and she represents the new Kentucky."

The last woman to win a federal election in Kentucky was former Republican U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who represented the 3rd Congressional District in Louisville from 1997 to 2007. Kentucky has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate.

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