The entrance of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the race for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Mitch McConnell makes the Kentucky contest one of the most closely watched in the country.
And the early jabs appear to put up Grimes’s relative inexperience against McConnell’s wide unpopularity.
After meeting with supporters, Grimes announced this week she intends to seek the party’s nomination to run against the GOP leader next year.
Immediately, the McConnell campaign and GOP groups mocked Grimes’s rollout as a sign the first-term secretary of state isn’t prepared to run at the national level.
The amount of attention spent on poking fun at Grimes could be further evidence this race will be the nastiest in 2014. But the Grimes team argues a full campaign rollout will be active by the end of July, and the criticisms are a petty distraction.
“Alison wanted to talk with supporters and when she concluded meeting with them she was going to make her intentions know, and that’s what she did. We have always said that she does plan to do a rollout across Kentucky listening to voters and talking to the families of Kentucky about this campaign,” says Grimes spokesman Jonathan Hurst. “The Republicans clearly don’t have any substance so this about the only thing they can use.”
Grimes has not officially filed with the Senate clerk of federal elections commission, which bars any fundraising, but even Democrats are miffed about the lack of a website.
Asked about the wisdom of announcing against arguably the most despised lawmaker among national Democrats without a online presence or fundraising mechanism, Hurst said: “The excitement and the energy is not going to go away. That is going to only get stronger.”
Whether or not the rollout is an early stumble or a campaign pattern is yet to be seen, but observers maintain Grimes presents McConnell with a serious threat as a fresh opponent who will be difficult to tag with a particular attack..
“I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout for McConnell. He’s going to have a tough opponent in Secretary Grimes. And I think there are all kinds of supporters who are going to be providing money for her,” says University of Louisville political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck. “I rather doubt she can keep up with Senator McConnell’s fundraising machine, but I don’t think she’s going to be seriously hindered either.”
Poll numbers show McConnell’s approval ratings are among the lowest in the country for an incumbent senator.
Election guru Nate Silver says the race is in McConnell’s favor, but notes those poor numbers are worse than when he ran for re-election in 2008 when he won by six points.
Public opinion surveys show that, on average, more Kentuckians disapprove than approve of the job he has done in the Senate. Roughly half of the respondents in the four recent partisan polls said they disapproved of Mr. McConnell’s performance.
On average, Mr. McConnell has a net job approval rating of minus 7 percent.
That unpopularity isn’t just Democratic antipathy towards McConnell either.
For months there has been talk of a possible tea party challenge in the Republican primary, and Kentucky groups have not shied away from criticizing the GOP leader publicly even amidst Democratic attacks.
Earlier this week, a conservative super PAC dubbed Senate Conservatives Fund called on McConnell to consider retirement ahead of next year’s election, citing his poor job approval ratings.
Re-election for McConnell has historically been a sprint to 51 percent rather than major victories. Save the 2002 blowout against Lois Combs Weinber, McConnell rarely breaks 55 percent mark and this is the first time he’s run against a statewide office holder.
“Senator McConnell’s definitely an experienced street fighter, but Alison Grimes is not a candidate to be taken lightly. And I think the senator will have to bear that in mind,” says Rhodebeck. “He could go after her lack of experience, but that’s a tricky criticism given that we have all kinds of examples, including one in Kentucky, of people who’ve run for the Senate with no experience.”