McConnell Defeats Tea Party Challenger in Kentucky Primary

Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao greet a crowd of campaign supporters after defeating Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin John Sommers II/Reuters

On Wednesday morning, Kentuckians will awaken to a new ad on their broadcast and cable television stations.

“Liberals coast to coast are rolling out the red carpet for Alison Grimes,” says the announcer in the ad, which superimposes an image of Grimes, Kentucky’s Democratic Senate nominee, next to President Obama. The announcer mentions Obama donors, first lady Michelle Obama, and Hollywood celebrities—all figures that are not popular in deep red Kentucky.

The announcer ends the ad: “Where’s Alison Grimes on the issues? Just look at her friends.”

It’s only been a few hours since the general election in Kentucky began, but what is sure to be a knock-down, drag-out fight between now and November is underway.

On Tuesday night, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell bested his Tea Party primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. With Bevin gone, McConnell and his allies are turning their full attention to his Democratic opponent, the 35-year-old Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The ad welcoming Kentucky voters to the post-primary election is a pro-McConnell Super PAC called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which put up over half a million dollars to run the ad through June 2 across the state. It’s just a taste of the vast resources, both from the campaigns and outside groups, that will help wage the McConnell-Grimes battle.

“It is definitely going to be a very ugly race,” said Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and former state treasurer in Kentucky. “Frankly, we haven’t seen the start of it.”

McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, faces the toughest re-election battle of his long career in Grimes. If he prevails—and Republican candidates in GOP-friendly states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina do as well—then Republicans could take the majority in the Senate and make him majority leader. A Bluegrass Poll commissioned by the Courier-Journal in Louisville and released this weekend showed Grimes and McConnell in a dead heat, 43 percent to 42 percent.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, McConnell turned his attention to Grimes with attacks that sound like those of the super PAC behind him.

"There's a reason every Hollywood liberal is sending her a check,” he told supporters. “It's because they know as well as we do that that there isn't a dime's worth of difference—not a dime's worth of difference—between a candidate that puts Harry Reid in charge and Harry Reid himself."

"A vote for my opponent is a vote for Obamacare and the president who sold it to us on a mountain of lies,” he said.

Grimes strategy so far has been to turn McConnell’s long career into a negative, saying he’s been in Washington too long and epitomizes the gridlock that makes Capitol Hill so dysfunctional. "We've had 30 years of failed leadership under Mitch McConnell; we cannot afford six more," Grimes said on the trail in Louisville recently.

The Bluegrass Poll showed that 38 percent of Republicans in the state agree McConnell had served too long and it was time for him to go, while 56 percent of Kentucky voters disapproved of the job he is doing in Congress. One positive for McConnell was that 55 percent of Republicans said his experience and seniority are important for Kentucky to have in Washington.

Miller sees a path to victory in for Grimes in tying McConnell to unpopular Washington, D.C. and government dysfunction. “If this race is Kentucky versus Washington, that’s where Alison wins,” he said. “She certainly started down that path and I think you’ll see a whole lot more of that in the coming months.”

McConnell tried to neuter this attack in his victory speech, promising that as Senate majority leader, he will end dysfunction in Washington. He also tried took aim at Grimes’ advantage among women voters, opening his speech by praising both his wife and mother and citing the woes of a female constituent who lost her doctor under the Affordable Care Act.

But that’s not the turf McConnell wants to fight on. Republicans want to have a very different debate between now and November. They want to tie Grimes to President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada—and as the new super PAC ad does, may as well throw in liberal Hollywood donors too.

Republicans’ goal is to tie Grimes to Obama and Reid, arguing that she will simply fall in line with the national Democrats that are unpopular in Kentucky. “The real story here, I think, that’s going to emerge is what would Grimes do if she were in the Senate?” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who worked on McConnell’s last two elections and is now a senior adviser to the pro-McConnell Kentuckians for Strong Leadership group.

“I think ultimately Kentucky will judge that it’s better for McConnell to be majority leader than Harry Reid, and it’s better if Barack Obama and Harry Reid don’t have a policy ally in the U.S. Senate,” he said.

“Ultimately, Grimes is campaigning against McConnell and McConnell is campaigning against Obama,” Miller summed up the two strategies.

McConnell biggest problem is that he remains deeply unpopular among Kentucky voters. Only 29 percent of voters have a favorable view of him, according to the Bluegrass Poll, while 49 percent have an unfavorable view. That’s about at the same level as President Obama, who is also viewed favorably by only 29 percent of Kentucky voters, while 57 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Grimes’ favorable rating of 35 percent is at least above water; her unfavorable rate is at 27 percent. McConnell will have to chip away at Grimes’ rating to win.

Whatever happens over the next several months, McConnell is known as a fierce campaigner. And while his campaign thus far has made a few slips, he won big over his primary challenger. “Kentucky is the national headquarters of the Tea Party. [GOP Senator] Rand Paul lives here,” Jennings said, giving his favorite candidate some credit for his big win Tuesday. “If there was ever a state where you were going to have an uprising against Mitch McConnell or someone like Mitch McConnell, it was going to be right here. And they stopped it from happening.”

Now, McConnell will have to unite Kentucky Republicans so that Bevin voters will support him in November. Meanwhile, Democrats hope that the primary made McConnell less appealing to the general electorate.

“Mitch McConnell, the face of Washington’s dysfunction, the self-proclaimed ‘guardian of gridlock,’ will emerge from his primary in the weakest position he has ever faced in his nearly 40 years in politics,” Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee supporting Grimes, said in an email to reporters Tuesday afternoon. “McConnell has already spent nearly $12 million on his reelection campaign, yet he has failed to move his numbers one bit.”

In addition to Kentucky, several other states held important primaries Tuesday and results are still trickling in. A few states south in Georgia, Republicans went to the polls to choose a candidate to compete for an open Senate seat against Democrat Michelle Nunn. The primary featured an array of colorful characters and is expected to result in a runoff. In Oregon, Republicans are selecting a nominee to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. And in Pennsylvania, Idaho and Arkansas, both parties selected candidates in U.S. House and gubernatorial contests.