A DEMOCRATIC senator from Kentucky? The idea may sound far-fetched, but Alison Lundergan Grimes, 34, is about to take her shot. This week, the Kentucky secretary of State filed papers to run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—an uphill struggle in which she will try to topple a five-term senator who is twice her age and one of Washington’s most formidable figures.
Grimes does have a lot going for her. She is the daughter of Jerry Lundergan—a two-term state-party chair, a good friend of Bill Clinton’s, and a member of Hillary Clinton’s finance committee in 2008. In other words, though she will have to play catch-up on the money front—McConnell has $7.4 million on hand already—her connections should help her raise considerable cash. “She is one hell of a retail politician, a dynamic speaker,” says Kentucky Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who noted that Grimes wowed donors at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event on Martha’s Vineyard. “A minimum of $70 million will be spent in the race,” he predicts. “I don’t think there are enough TV stations to run all the ads.”
In her 2011 secretary-of-State campaign, Grimes trounced her Republican opponent by double digits while demonstrating a knack for cutting through clutter. During that campaign, she broadcast a commercial titled “Elsie and Thelma,” which showed her sitting with her two grandmothers, each elderly woman at a laptop, brainstorming about writing campaign ads. Warm and witty, it was a winner. In office, she pushed through an initiative to allow service members overseas to vote electronically and another to keep the addresses of domestic-abuse victims confidential.
Polls suggest that a Grimes-McConnell race would be close, with one recent survey showing McConnell up 7 points and another showing a 45-45 tie. That said, it’s true that the basic realities of Kentucky politics favor Republicans. Moreover, McConnell is known for playing hardball on the campaign trail. Actress Ashley Judd toyed with entering the race, but bowed out after McConnell aides were caught on a leaked tape looking for ways to use her admission of past drug abuse against her. More recently McConnell launched an ad against Grimes that showed her head attached to the body of Ellen DeGeneres as the talk-show host danced with President Obama. Grimes, the commercial proclaimed, is “not ready for primetime.”
In response to the ad, Grimes told a local television reporter, “This is one Kentucky woman who is not going to be bullied.” That much seems clear. What we won’t know until next year is whether she can win.