[Updated at 9:15 a.m. EDT]
His napkin tucked under his chin, Sen. Mitch McConnell just ate his tea party challenger for breakfast – beating Matt Bevin in the Kentucky GOP primary race for Senate by a wide margin of 25 percentage points.
That will be much harder to do come dinnertime in November, when Senator McConnell faces his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. The two are statistically tied in opinion polls, portending a messy race in which Republican control of the Senate will be at stake, along with Senator McConnell’s chance to become majority leader.
McConnell had 60.2 percent of the vote to Mr. Bevin's 34.4 percent.
The McConnell-Grimes contest “is going to be expensive; it is going to be intense,” says Jennifer Duffy, of the independent Cook Political Report. “I think this is going to end up being one of the closest, if not the closest, race in the country.”
The tactically talented McConnell, who has nearly 30 years in Washington under his belt, will approach the Grimes campaign much as he did with underdog Bevin – define his opponent by her flaws (in this case, as an Obama clone), keep his bulging campaign war chest well stocked, and work his ground game to unite Republicans and conservative Democrats who have traditionally voted for him.
“The big battle will be to define Grimes,” says Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
The young Ms. Grimes is a bit of a blank slate, and her political inexperience, like Bevin’s, could make her vulnerable to mistakes that “Team Mitch” will be quick to exploit. Indeed, some Democrats already criticize her for spending more time on fundraising than defining herself. She launched her first television ad less than two weeks ago, yet she announced her candidacy last July.
Her current job as Kentucky’s elected secretary of state responsible for elections is not exactly a high-profile post. She also doesn’t have a voting record to run on. These can be political pluses, in that she can more easily shape her own persona and doesn’t have a voting history that opponents can hang around her neck. Last week’s Bluegrass Poll, commissioned by Kentucky media, shows that – in contrast to McConnell – more voters approve than disapprove of the job she’s doing, but that nearly 40 percent of voters view her either neutrally or have no opinion of her at all.
That’s a prime opportunity for McConnell to paint her negatively, which he has already begun to do. In a state where only President Obama has a lower job approval rating than McConnell, the senator is trying to glue her to the president – who lost Kentucky by wide margins, twice. In his victory speech Tuesday night, he described Grimes as "Barack Obama's candidate."
Recently, Allison Moore, McConnell's campaign spokesperson, blasted Grimes for benefiting from the "ultra rich liberal elite who bankrolled Barack Obama into the White House."
An ad by a "super political action committee" supporting McConnell, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, plans to launch a TV ad Wednesday that ties Grimes to liberals, Hollywood, and Michelle Obama, who has a 29 percent approval rating in Kentucky.
Grimes, on the other hand, is trying to make November a referendum on the unpopular McConnell, whom she blames for Washington’s dysfunction. She called him "Senator Gridlock" in her victory speech Tuesday night. True, McConnell is despised by liberals, by the right wing of his party, and by some in the middle. No love lost here. But blaming him for blocking Obama is a risky strategy in a conservative state where 57 percent of voters hold an unfavorable opinion of the president – indeed, McConnell is selling himself to voters as chief blocker to Obama.
Grimes has another sales pitch, a positive message that mirrors the Democrats’ national appeal to the middle class – more jobs, a higher minimum wage, and pay equity for women. It could catch on in a state with some of the poorest counties in the country. Like McConnell, she opposes Obama’s coal policy, a wise move in a coal state, and she’s also highlighting her Kentucky creds and values: born and raised in the state and a supporter of gun rights.
One factor that sunk Bevin was McConnell’s superior campaign fundraising. He outspent his opponent, who had considerable backing from outside tea party organizations, by a factor of about 4 to 1. Grimes has proven herself to be a capable fundraiser, actually outraising McConnell since she got in the race. (It helps to have friends like Bill Clinton to rake in $600,000 at a single event.) But McConnell still has twice the funds on hand that she has: about $10.4 million vs. her nearly $5 million.
Lastly, McConnell will try to grind down Grimes with his ground game using social media, data, and a loyal network of Republicans that he has been tending for years. In a state with a half million more registered Democrats than Republicans, he has won the votes of conservative Democrats for nearly 30 years.
But Grimes comes with her own strategic strengths. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, was the former head of Kentucky’s Democratic Party and has connections all over the state. Democrats have been investing in women candidates at the local level and in networking among women seniors.
“Our state is poised for the impact of women at the polls,” says state Rep. Kelly Flood (D) from Lexington, a Democratic stronghold. To help drive home the women’s message, Grimes’s grandmother features in her campaign.
And even though conservative Democrats are used to voting Republican in national elections, Grimes may benefit from their registration numbers if she can match their values, says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. A big question is what Bevin’s voters will do – stay home (a benefit to Grimes) or hold their nose and vote for McConnell.
Speaking of Grimes, Mr. Cross says: “She has an uphill climb … but she has a chance.”
That’s exactly why this race will be so expensive, and so intense.