Now That It's Official, How Will McConnell-Grimes Contest Play Out?

May 21, 2014

Kentucky voters return to the polls Nov. 4 to choose between Sen. Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Credit Abbey Oldham

With Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary now behind them, Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes can now invest 100 percent of their time, effort, and money into the November 4 general election.

Sen. McConnell beat Tea Party activist and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the GOP primary by about 25 points, and Grimes easily won her party’s contest.

While he ultimately lost, Bevin’s candidacy exposed divisions within the Kentucky Republican Party that Democrats hope will benefit them in the fall.

A great deal of attention is now going to be paid to efforts by the McConnell campaign and its supporters to heal any lingering wounds between so-called “establishment” Republicans and Tea Partiers. At rallies across Kentucky in recent months, Tea Party supporters have assailed the Senate Minority Leader as someone who talks like a conservative while in the commonwealth, but votes with liberals when in Washington.

Bobby Alexander, with the Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots, told WKU Public Radio at a recent rally in Elizabethtown that McConnell has forgotten what it means to be a Republican.

“Because if you look at the Republican leadership in Washington, so often they vote with Democrats on non-conservative issues: big spending, more taxes, bigger government,” Alexander said.

Wooing the Tea Party Faction

Sen. McConnell’s campaign has five-and-a-half months to convince Tea Partiers like Alexander to show up on Nov. 4 and vote for McConnell. The Kentucky Senate race is shaping up to be one of—if not the—most closely watched elections in the nation.

That’s because so much is on the line: with a November victory over Grimes, McConnell could become Senate Majority Leader, should the GOP pick up at least six seats in November.

For Democrats, the race is a chance to defeat the man who has built the reputation as one of the most powerful Kentucky politicians in recent memory.

Warren County Republican Party Chairman and McConnell supporter Scott Lasley says there’s no shortage of reasons why Tea Partiers should back the Senate Minority Leader this fall. Chief among them, according to Lasley, is that a vote for Grimes is a vote to keep Nevada’s Harry Reid as the leader of the U.S. Senate.

“I would think that over time, (Tea Partiers) would sit there and think, ‘Jeepers, here’s one more vote for Harry Reid to be Senate Majority Leader’, or we can have a good chance to have Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader.”

“That should be a no-brainer,” says Lasley, a WKU Political Science Professor. “If it’s not a no-brainer, then people probably aren’t very strategic in nature.”

Lasley says the Kentucky Republican Party, starting Wednesday, will embark on an effort to convince Tea Partiers that if they dislike Sen. McConnell, they would loathe a Sen. Grimes.

“They have different views on the role of government, they have different views on the role of the E.P.A., they have different views on a whole range of factors.”

Low Approval Ratings for McConnell, Low Name Recognition for Grimes

This fall will likely represent the biggest re-election challenge McConnell has faced since he became a U.S. Senator in 1985. Recent polling—including an NBC News-Marist poll released last week—showed just 41 percent of registered voters approved of the job being done by the Louisville Republican.

Forty-six percent said they disapproved. That same poll, along with several others, portrays the race between McConnell and Grimes as a virtual tie.

If Secretary Grimes can continue to mount a strong campaign against McConnell, the GOP incumbent will need every vote he can get to win in November, including votes from Tea Partiers who cast ballots for Matt Bevin yesterday. Former Bowling Green mayor and vice-chair of the Warren County Democratic Executive Committee Patsy Sloan says while she would like to count on Tea Partiers staying home in the fall, she’s not betting on it.

While Sloan knows some Tea Party supporters may say in the immediate aftermath of the primary that they won’t support McConnell in the fall, but she expects “a great deal of effort will go into encouraging them to change their minds.”

“In the final analysis, I expect that most of Matt Bevin’s supporters will vote for Sen. McConnell in the fall.”

According to Sloan, the race is now on to define Alison Lundergan Grimes. She’s serving her first term as Secretary of State, which is not a very high-profile office. The recent NBC News-Marist poll showed 37 percent of registered voters were either “unsure” about how they felt about Grimes or had never heard of her.

Republicans: Voting for Grimes Helps Liberal Democrats in Washington

Lasley, head of the Warren County Republican Party, says the GOP will seek to “nationalize” the Kentucky race, by equating Grimes with President Obama, Harry Reid, and other Democrats who are unpopular in the Bluegrass State.

Sloan says Democrats are prepared for the Republican strategy of connecting Grimes with President Obama. Sloan believes Grimes will need to find ways to distinguish herself from the President, without alienating too many Kentucky Democrats who support Mr. Obama.

Furthermore, the former Bowling Green mayor says the Grimes campaign can’t assume that relatively high voter dissatisfaction with McConnell will be enough to propel the Democrat to victory.

“There is a group  of people who would vote for anybody who ran against Sen. McConnell. Alison Lundergan Grimes starts with that as a base. But what she has to do is build beyond that, and give people reasons to vote not simply against Sen. McConnell, but for her.”

Political junkies have 163 days starting Wednesday to enjoy the twists and turns of Kentucky’s much-anticipated U.S. Senate race.