Elections

McConnell trounces Grimes, winning sixth term and chance to lead U.S. Senate

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in a landslide Tuesday to win a sixth term and a likely promotion to majority leader of the United States Senate.

Republicans picked up the seats needed to retake control of the Senate, putting McConnell in line to be the first U.S. Senate majority leader from Kentucky since Alben Barkley led the upper chamber in 1947.

"Tonight, Kentuckians said we can do better as a nation," McConnell said in his victory speech in Louisville. "Tonight, they said we can have real change in Washington. Real change, and that's just what I intend to deliver."

McConnell, 72, emerged victorious despite facing his first real primary challenge of his career and a well-financed and excited national Democratic base that was eager to knock off the man who once said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

On Tuesday, McConnell told more than 800 supporters that Republicans have an obligation to try to find areas of agreement with Obama.

"Just because we have a two-party system doesn't mean we have to be in perpetual conflict," he said.

Simultaneously embracing his key roles both as the chief thorn in Obama's side and as the top Republican who negotiated ends to the last four standoffs with the Democratic White House, McConnell surged to victory Tuesday despite low personal approval ratings in Kentucky.

Polls had shown a relatively tight race for months, but in the end, McConnell trounced Grimes in every corner of the state, winning by a shocking 15-point margin.

In Lexington, Grimes' hometown, the Democrat won with a slim 52 percent majority, but she won about 18,000 fewer votes than Democrat Bruce Lunsford did when he ran against McConnell in 2008. About 47 percent of the county's registered voters cast a ballot.

McConnell won several Eastern Kentucky coal counties that he'd never had in his long career, besting Grimes in Magoffin, Breathitt, Pike, Floyd and Knott Counties.

On Tuesday night, McConnell was effusive in his praise for Grimes, telling his supporters that "it took a lot of guts" for the 35-year-old Kentucky secretary of state to throw her hat in the ring.

"She earned a lot of votes and she earned my respect," McConnell said. "I admire her willingness to step in the arena and fight as hard as she did."

After calling McConnell to concede the race less than 45 minutes after polls had closed in Western Kentucky, Grimes kept her remarks short, telling about 200 dejected supporters that she would "continue to fight for the commonwealth of Kentucky each and every day."

"While tonight didn't bring us the result that we had hoped for, this journey — this fight for you — was worth it," Grimes said.

Grimes supporters, thinking even after the race had been called that there was reason for hope, expressed disappointment.

Former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, one of Grimes' closest allies, when asked for a comment, said, "I'm not talking."

Attorney Gen. Jack Conway said Obama's low approval rating in Kentucky was a key factor in the race, just as it was in his unsuccessful race against Sen. Rand Paul in 2010.

"The president's approval rating is 30 percent. It was in similar territory when I ran in 2010," Conway said.

From the beginning, Democrats and Republicans alike viewed McConnell as extremely vulnerable heading into the race, and the senator's long list of enemies — born of 30 years of hard-nosed, sharp-elbowed political brawling — ran hard against him twice this year.

The first challenger, Republican Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, presented a serious threat, spending more than $5 million and uniting national Tea Party fundraising groups against him.

McConnell was forced to spend heavily to hold off Bevin and his outside backers, viewing the showdown as a way to potentially strike a fatal blow to Tea Party groups that McConnell and other establishment Republicans blamed for back-to-back election cycles in which incumbents were defeated by conservatives who turned out to be unpalatable to general electorates.

McConnell spent more than $10 million battling Bevin, leaving the former challenger so embittered that even in late October, he couldn't bring himself to say that he was endorsing the senator's re-election bid.

While McConnell fended off Bevin, Grimes kept a laser-like focus on courting the national media and raising money, traveling to Democratic fundraisers in New York City, Hollywood and Martha's Vineyard as she tapped into national liberal disdain for McConnell and tried to offset the senator's enormous fundraising head start.

That travel schedule, combined with the Grimes campaign's decision to mostly skip introducing a largely unknown candidate to the electorate until after the primary election, created an opening for two McConnell-allied groups to go to work early defining Grimes in ways she could not overcome down the road.

The super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the non-profit Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, both of which were run by former top McConnell aide Scott Jennings, first went on the air in May 2013.

Seizing on Obama's unpopularity in the state, Jennings and McConnell's campaign established the narrative that a vote for Grimes would be a vote for the president and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In June 2013, a month before Grimes officially entered the race, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership went on the air with an ad referring to a news report that Grimes had met with Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"Grimes would stand with Obama," the ad said. "And that's bad news for us."

As McConnell bested Bevin in May, 60 percent to 35 percent, there were signs that Jennings' groups had already inflicted a great deal of damage on Grimes' hopes for beating McConnell.

Using Obama's "war on coal" as a vehicle and reminding voters at every turn that Reid once said "coal makes you sick," Republicans saw election returns in coal-producing counties on May 20 as proof that their line of attack had worked.

Grimes, in a closed primary where none of the other candidates were remotely well financed, won the Democratic nomination with a little more than 76 percent of the vote, meaning 24 percent of Democrats cast a protest vote against her.

Heading into the general election, Grimes dramatically stepped up her efforts to change the narrative in Eastern Kentucky, emphasizing her support for coal in a variety of ways, including posing for a picture while in a coal mine.

But there were missteps as she tried to move to McConnell's right on the issue, blaming him for the job losses coal country has sustained. In particular, independent fact-checkers debunked Grimes' claim that McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, had taken large sums of money from anti-coal groups.

Grimes devoted the majority of her efforts — in stump speeches and advertising — to bruising McConnell instead of defining herself in the minds of voters, who, after 30 years, had already decided whether they loved or loathed the state's senior senator.

McConnell, meanwhile, settled on a two-pronged messaging strategy: "Obama needs Grimes; Kentucky needs McConnell."

Despite the occasional stumble, McConnell rarely veered from his message of offering Kentuckians one more chance to vote against Obama while making one of their own the leader of the Senate.

Both in Kentucky and nationally, Democrats pinned a great deal of hope on Grimes, seeing her as their best chance in 30 years to beat McConnell. Grimes, though, sometimes struggled to answer policy questions on the rare occasions when she veered from her anti-McConnell talking points.

On the fundraising front, Grimes shattered quarterly fundraising records in Kentucky, but McConnell also set a new state best for total amount of money raised. In the end, more than $80 million was raised and spent in the Bluegrass State, a hefty sum but far short of the $100 million that many predicted.

The two outside groups run by Jennings spent about $20 million on a combination of pro-McConnell issues ads and spots tying Grimes to Obama.

Tuesday night, Jennings said in a statement, "Kentuckians once again recognized that Sen. McConnell is the indispensable leader, fighting President Obama's war on coal and ensuring that Kentucky gets the respect and attention it needs in Washington."

In mid-September, with polls showing McConnell having established a small but clear lead, Grimes ran an ad that featured her shooting skeet, in which she turned to the camera and said: "I'm not Barack Obama."

But the damage had been done. As Obama's popularity numbers continued sinking and the country watched nightly newscasts about Ebola, the Islamic State and other national nightmares, so did Grimes' chances for winning.

"On a night like tonight, you're grateful above all else, and for me that gratitude starts with the people of Kentucky," McConnell said. "They've put their trust and confidence in me for a long time, and I want to thank them tonight."

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