Kentucky Senate race: how it became 'Clash of the Titans'

The matchup between Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is on track to be the biggest spending race in US Senate history, most of it by outside groups. 

Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes (l.) speaks to a group of supporters during a political rally. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (r.) of Ky. speaks in Louisville, Ky.

Both sides are rolling out big names and big money in the Kentucky Senate race, despite polls indicating Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes faces tough odds in her bid to oust Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell.

“She’s been behind in every poll but one for months,” Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report, told the Hill Wednesday. “The one poll she was ahead by a point was her own. I just think there’s been a conventional wisdom developing that she’s in trouble.”

This week Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton are hopping into the race to fund-raise and advertise, bringing even bigger names into a bruising contest that’s on track to burn through $100 million – more than any other race in US Senate history. Many observers call it the highest profile race of the year. 

But why spend so much money – and bring in so much star power – when most polling shows Senator McConnell leading in red-leaning Kentucky? It’s likely because the race, for Democrats, is about something bigger: Getting rid of McConnell and keeping the Senate blue.

​Meanwhile, GOP control of the US Senate is a key objective for outside conservative groups, who are outspending liberal groups in this race 2 to 1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

"At one point this race was closer than it is now," says Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, adding that it appears "some of the heavy spending by outside groups is actually starting to be somewhat effective."

The candidates have transformed the race into a referendum on national politics, and national political money is pouring in to help them. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, an outside group not required to disclose its donors, has spent $6.9 million, as of Sept. 30, to defeat Ms. Grimes. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has directed $4.3 million through his Senate Majority PAC (political action committee) to defeat McConnell, according to the CRP. 

Both McConnell and Grimes are doing their best to tie the other to unpopular Washington institutions: McConnell casts Grimes as an Obama lackey, and Grimes blames McConnell for a dysfunctional Congress. 

To counter those images, each candidate is banking on help from party favorites, Mr. Romney and Mr. Clinton.

Grimes launches a television ad Thursday featuring Clinton – the first Senate campaign ad the former president has been in this cycle, according to the Huffington Post. Clinton has taken two trips to Kentucky to back Grimes so far this year.

And Romney is stumping and fund-raising for McConnell in Kentucky Thursday. Romney’s ability to rake in cash and energize Republicans has made him a hot commodity on the campaign trail. This week, he’ll visit seven states – covering almost 6,000 miles, from Colorado to Kentucky – backing candidates in tight races. Those candidates’ success could help Republicans capture the Senate in November.

Romney’s jet-setting comes as some agitate for the former Massachusetts governor to make yet another presidential run. Romney advisers have publicly tried to quell that enthusiasm, but he nonetheless remains popular – possibly because his party lacks an obvious standard-bearer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential primaries.

"There's a vacuum," John Jordan, a high-profile Republican donor from California, told the Associated Press. "When there's 10 people in a possible presidential field, it's difficult for anyone to look presidential.”

Grimes’s campaign and national Democrats contend that the contest is far from over, saying Grimes has a good shot at unseating McConnell. After leading in early polls, Grimes has dropped 5.3 points beyond McConnell, according to a rolling average of major polls by RealClearPolitics.

“This is still very much a margin-of-error race,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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