McConnell-Grimes: Ground Zero

Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao wave to supporters after a victory celebration on May 20, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao wave to supporters after a victory celebration on May 20, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Updated at 8:48 and 10:48 am EDT, May 21

The front could not be clearer than it is in Kentucky.

The stakes couldn’t be much higher than they are for Washington.

The swift and expected victories of two candidates for the Senate in their party primaries tonight — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s trouncing of a Tea Party-backed rival on the Republican side, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ never really contested Democratic nomination — drew instant responses:

— “We need Sen. McConnell in Washington to protect our Second Amendment freedoms,” said Chris Cox, chairman of the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund in an e-mailed statement noting that the five-term senator holds an “A-plus” rating from the nation’s pre-eminent gun lobby,  a rating “ reserved for a legislator with not only an excellent voting record on all critical NRA issues, but who has also made a vigorous effort to promote and defend he Second Amendment.”

—  “Alison Lundergan Grimes is Kentucky’s future, and tonight she’s one big step closer to making Mitch McConnell and his 30 years of failure history,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, in an emailed statement noting that the Republican leader had presided over a shutdown of the federal government and asserting that  “shutting him down is a top priority for the EMILY’s List community of over 3 million members.”

If the Republican Party didn’t want a “war on women,” it has one now — in a state that never has elected a woman to the Senate, a state that has sent and returned McConnell to Washington five times — though polling shows that public opinion has turned sharply against the seasoned minority leader.

And it’s a national battle: Should McConnell’s party win six Senate seats in other states where Democrats appear vulnerable this year — with most independent experts giving the GOP a better than even chance of winning those six seats — Republicans will control the Congress for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s second and final term. Yet that six-state sweep could be for naught should McConnell lose his own state and with it his leadership of either a minority or majority party in Washington.

The NRA, which is nothing if not committed to putting Republicans in charge of Congress, and EMILY’s List, the organization that funnels campaign contributions into the causes of women around the country, are but two of the outside organizations which stand to make Kentucky’s 2014 Senate race a $100-million-plus proposition.

At the start, it’s a dead heat.

An average of the last four public polls run on the McConnell-Grimes contest in Kentucky shows them less than one-point apart: All four polls revealed a one-point margin between the two — three leaning toward McConnell, one toward Grimes — all of which adds up to as close to a perfect statistical tie as four separate polls will ever produce.

Here’s a sobering footnote for the minority leader:

Asked in the “Bluegrass Poll” run by the Courier-Journal in Louisville their opinion of the five-term senator’s work in Washington, 56 percent of voters surveyed said they disapprove of the job he’s done and 34 percent approve. Asked about the job Grimes is doing as secretary of state, 46 percent said they approve, 32 percent disapprove. The survey of 1,782 registered voters May 15-17 carries a possible margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.

Yet McConnell holds one significant advantage heading into a heated contest with Grimes: The notoriously low voter-turnout of midterm elections, particularly among the younger and minority voters on whom Democrats count for electoral victories. The polls portraying a dead heat belie who among those voters actually will turn out.

In addition, McConnell is signaling an aggressive campaign against his challenger. And he is attempting to nationalize the contest in his own terms.

“My opponent is in the race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her in the race,” McConnell said at his election night rally, suggesting there’s a reason why all the “Hollywood liberals” are sending Grimes checks. “A vote for my opponent is a vote for Obamacare and the president who sold it to us on a mountain of lies.”

Grimes is finding her own campaign rhythm, however, and she immediately answered McConnell in her own election night rally. “I am not a rubber stamp and I am not a cheerleader,” Grimes said. “I am a strong Kentucky woman who is an independent thinker who, when I’m Kentucky’s next senator, the decisions I make will be what’s best for the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not partisan interests… I will answer to the people of Kentucky. I won’t answer to the president no matter who he or she might be.”

This race, she rhetorically told McConnell, is “between you and me.”

This is only the beginning. The two candidates and the groups supporting them have nearly six months to tip the balance in favor of a Republican-run Senate or a Democratic-run one — making this simply the most significant Senate race of all this year.


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