By Sam Youngman, Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT)
LEXINGTON, Ky. — U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell held off Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Tuesday’s election to win a sixth term and quite possibly a promotion to majority leader of the United States Senate.
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.”
Simultaneously embracing his key roles as the chief thorn in President Barack Obama’s side and as the top Republican who negotiated ends to the last four stand-offs with the Democratic White House, McConnell surged to victory despite low personal approval ratings in Kentucky.
Democrats and Republicans 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 SuperPAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the nonprofit 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, before Grimes would officially enter the race the following month, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership went on the air with an ad referring to a news report that Grimes had met with Reid.
“Grimes would stand with Obama,” the ad said. “And that’s bad news for us.”
As McConnell bested Bevin 60 percent to 35 percent in May, 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 observers had 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.
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.
Less than a week before the election, the final Bluegrass Poll showed McConnell with a five-point lead over Grimes, 48 percent to 43 percent.
The poll also showed Obama with a 27 percent favorability rating in the state.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
This story has been updated.