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McConnell Holds Off Grimes In Kentucky For Sixth Term And Chance At Leading U.S. Senate

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.

McConnell Widens Lead Over Grimes In Final Bluegrass Poll

By Sam Youngman, Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has opened up a 5-point lead over Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes and appears well-positioned to win a sixth term, according to the final Bluegrass Poll before Tuesday’s election.

McConnell leads Grimes 48 percent to 43 percent in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, with Libertarian candidate David Patterson pulling 3 percent.

In a Bluegrass Poll released early last week, McConnell was clinging to a 1-point lead, with 44 percent backing him and 43 percent choosing Grimes.

The latest poll of 597 likely voters in Kentucky was conducted by SurveyUSA between Oct. 25 and Oct. 29 on behalf of the Lexington Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

With just five days to go until Election Day, McConnell has surged as Republican voters show increasing unity and President Barack Obama’s popularity hits a new low in the state.

“The Bluegrass Poll has been the one independent source indicating that Grimes might be on target to win this Senate race, so having the numbers turn against her is devastating news,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

After four Bluegrass Polls showed McConnell falling below 80 percent among likely Republican voters, the senator appears to be solidifying his base. Eighty-six percent now say they will vote for McConnell.

Poll respondent Terie Blankenbaker of Louisville said she had hoped Louisville businessman Matt Bevin would win the Republican primary in May, but she is voting for McConnell now because he has “typically” stood up to the president and his “liberal agenda.”

“I think it’s despicable what he’s done to our country,” Blankenbaker said of Obama.

Grimes, on the other hand, continues to face problems within her own party. Only 71 percent of Democrats say they will support her and 23 percent say they will back McConnell.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of registered voters say they have a favorable view of Obama, whose policies on coal have cast a large shadow over Grimes throughout the race. Fifty-five percent have an unfavorable view of Obama, and those margins grow dramatically in the western and eastern parts of the state.

“President Obama is clearly the albatross hanging around Grimes’ neck,” Voss said. “He is incredibly unpopular in Kentucky, and if anything, in the last several weeks attitudes toward him have only worsened.”

The poll shows McConnell leading among men and women. He leads 48 percent to 43 percent among men and 47 percent to 43 percent among women.

The state’s senior senator has a 10-point advantage among voters 50 and older. Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of state, holds a 4-point lead among voters 49 and younger.

Regionally, McConnell built on his double-digit leads in eastern and western portions of the state (53-36 in the east and 55-38 in the west) while cutting Grimes’ lead in the Louisville region from 14 points early last week to eight points (41-49). The candidates remained tied with 45 percent each in north-central Kentucky, which includes the Lexington area and Northern Kentucky.

McConnell’s popularity continues to suffer, with only 37 percent of respondents saying they have a favorable view of him, compared to 44 percent who have an unfavorable view.

“I don’t like what Mitch has been doing,” said poll respondent Timothy Abrams of Berea. “I think he’s dragging his feet and just making things better for himself and not making things better for the state.”

But Grimes’ popularity has moved into similarly bleak territory, with 37 percent holding a favorable view and 43 percent holding an unfavorable view, her highest negative rating of the year.

If Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate, McConnell would likely become the majority leader, and he has repeatedly argued that his leadership position would be good for Kentucky.

The Bluegrass Poll found that 51 percent of respondents believe it is “important to have someone in the U.S. Senate with seniority,” including 34 percent of self-identified Democrats.

Poll respondent Tiffany Scofield, a Louisville Republican, said it “would be the most stupid thing in the world to throw out the most powerful Republican in the country, and that’s why he needs to stay there to change things.”

“(Grimes) will be at the bottom of the barrel, and that is not going to help Kentuckians,” Scofield said. “It would just be foolhardy to throw him out.”

But James Graham, another poll respondent from Louisville, said the time has come for McConnell to go.

“We need some new blood in there,” Graham said. “Mitch McConnell hasn’t done anything for the seniors or … to help the working man.”

Less than two-thirds of voters say they know where McConnell and Grimes stand on the issues, according to the poll, with McConnell edging out Grimes 64 percent to 60 percent on that measure.

The poll also sought to gauge how voters viewed the efforts of Grimes and McConnell to avoid answering certain questions posed by the media in recent weeks. Grimes has refused to say if she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 while McConnell has refused to say if he believes climate change is occurring as a result of human activity.

Only 39 percent of registered voters say Grimes should answer the Obama question while 53 percent say McConnell should answer the climate-change question.

Grimes was criticized heavily by several national media outlets for avoiding the Obama question, with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd going so far as to say Grimes had “disqualified herself.”

“The national media obsessed over the secretary of state’s refusal to say whether she voted for Obama, but the number of voters who express unhappiness with her decision is not large, and it’s likely most of them were voting against Grimes anyway,” Voss said.

Despite the intensely negative nature of the race, 68 percent of respondents agree with the statement “I’m satisfied with my choices for the U.S. Senate.”

Among Republicans, 71 percent say they are satisfied with their options, but that number ticks up to 74 percent among self-identified conservatives. By comparison, 73 percent of Democrats say they are satisfied with their choices, but that number drops to 61 percent among self-identified liberals.

Among self-identified independents, less than half — 47 percent — say they were satisfied with their choices.

Photo: UFCW International Union via Flickr

McConnell Wraps Opponent In Obama, Gains Edge In Kentucky Senate Race

By Sam Youngman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

LEXINGTON, Ky. — When Jim Cauley returned to Pikeville, Kentucky, this month for his 30th high school reunion, he heard familiar complaints from old classmates.

“I can’t believe you did that to us,” Cauley said. “That’s their favorite line.”

Though a native of the Eastern Kentucky mountain town, Cauley is still vilified by many in the state for a job he took in 2004: managing Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois.

A decade later, disdain for Obama in Kentucky is at a fever pitch, and it is at the core of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s increasingly confident re-election campaign.

McConnell is establishing a small but steady lead over his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who at age 35 is running only her second political campaign.

Cauley and other Kentucky Democratic strategists in recent days warned that unless Grimes significantly changes her strategy, she is in danger of losing. That would not only give McConnell a sixth term, but also win in one of the few Senate races where the Republicans might once have been vulnerable. That would make it more likely that the Republicans could gain the net six seats they need to seize control of the Senate, and to help McConnell reach his ultimate career goal of becoming Senate majority leader.

It’s not that McConnell is that popular. Only 36 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of him in a recent Bluegrass Poll.

But Obama is disliked even more — just 29 percent viewed him favorably in the same poll. And McConnell appears to have successfully convinced many Kentucky voters, especially those in coal-producing regions, that Grimes would be a rubber stamp for the president.

Well into this year, outside political analysts viewed Grimes as a lethal threat to McConnell’s future. They pointed to McConnell’s high negative numbers, a primary challenge from within his own party and the enthusiasm of Democrats who have long loathed the senator.

During that period, Grimes kept her focus on fundraising as she tried to catch up to McConnell’s huge advantage.

By largely forfeiting the opportunity to introduce herself at a time when McConnell was distracted by his own primary challenge, Grimes allowed Republicans to define her in the eyes of voters who were already contemptuous of Obama, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

“Many voters reported being uncertain or neutral about Grimes going into the general election, and that meant she would need to try to define herself as a Kentucky Democrat while competing with McConnell’s contrary message that she will become a stooge for President Obama,” Voss said.

At the same time, McConnell’s campaign worked to define Grimes as an Obama ally. McConnell pointed to a huge decline in coal jobs, which Republicans argue that is the result of Obama’s “war on coal,” and strived to link Grimes to it.

Kentucky is particularly sensitive to the pressures on coal mining, as 21 coal mines were idled in the state during the first half of this year, a third of all the coal mines nationwide to be closed. Several forces contributed, such as lower costs for natural gas and rising imports of lower-cost coal from outside the United States. But new environmental rules announced this summer by the Obama administration have added to the forces against Eastern Kentucky coal and stoked the belief that Obama is deliberately hurting the coal industry.

“It’s so widely known in Kentucky that this administration … has put a bull’s eye on the coal industry, particularly in the eastern part of the state,” said Mike Duncan, a Kentucky banker and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. McConnell, he said, has “done a good job of connecting the dots.”

Grimes has tried to position herself as a pro-coal Democrat. Maybe the best example is the ad she ran this month in which she’s shooting skeet and says, “I’m not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA.”

The first signs that the McConnell approach was working came on the night of the May 20 primary.

McConnell won his primary easily. Grimes sailed to the Democratic nomination, but she lost almost a quarter of registered Democrats to one of her unknown, unfunded opponents in what appeared to be protest votes in the state’s closed primary. The worst margins for Grimes, predictably, came from coal-producing counties.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), defended the Grimes campaign’s early strategy. “She had to do what she was doing at the time,” he said. “She had to put together the organization, and she had to raise money.”

But after the primary, the polls began to shift in McConnell’s favor. For weeks, the race seemed to focus almost entirely on coal, as Grimes’ central message of economic populism — raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and reducing student loan debt — failed to gain much traction beyond her reliable Democratic base.

Meanwhile, Republicans who had supported McConnell’s primary challenger began returning to McConnell, as polls showed one in four Democrats choosing McConnell over Grimes.

“McConnell was not as weak as he looked because those conservatives disparaging him nonetheless are the sort who turn out to vote, and once they’re forced to choose between a Republican and a Democrat, they’ll side with the GOP most of the time,” Voss said.

Republicans who not long ago were concerned about McConnell’s chances are starting to feel more comfortable.

“A year ago, I was concerned about the race,” Duncan said. “Six months ago, I thought some movement had been made. In the last few weeks, it’s clear to me that Kentuckians have been coming home to Sen. McConnell.”

But Yarmuth warned that McConnell is still below 50 percent in most polls, and he thinks Grimes is in the process of winning over Kentuckians who want to vote against McConnell but haven’t been completely sold on Grimes as an alternative.

Grimes recently released television and newspaper ads emphasizing her plan to raise the minimum wage, equal pay for women and job training for veterans.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more of that kind of approach, so that people who don’t want to vote for Mitch have a better understanding of who she is and what she wants to do,” Yarmuth said. “I think that’s her challenge over the next month.”

The race, Yarmuth said, is far from over.

“I know their campaign is not discouraged, and I’m not discouraged for them,” he said.

Youngman reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr