Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have banked over $12 million in campaign ads in August, just a portion of the spending in what’s projected to be the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history at $100 million.
In a live, televised debate Monday night, the two candidates fought hard to stick to their investments, repeating much of their campaign ad talking points.
Grimes, ahead by 2 points in the most recent Bluegrass Poll, took McConnell to task on his reluctance to support an increasingly popular minimum wage hike and his votes against the Fair Pay Amendment barring gender discrimination. McConnell, maintaining his eastern Kentucky alliances, continued to cast Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, as a rubber stamp for President Obama and called for rollbacks of EPA regulations.
After trading barbs for an hour, both campaigns casted their candidate as having the upper hand in the Kentucky Educational Television forum.
University of Louisville professor Dewey Clayton, who watched on television, said he saw no clear winner Monday night.
“I think they both scored very good points and both held their ground,” said Clayton. “On balance possibly Secretary Grimes helped herself simply because she was the challenger and I think a lot of people were wondering, ‘Well, how well is she going to do up against you know this veteran minority leader in the senate?’”
U of L political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck agreed with Clayton.
“I think many viewers go into debates perhaps hoping for some grand slam or some faux pas some explosion and we didn’t get those,” said Rhodebeck. “I saw the debate largely as a continuation of the conversation that’s been going on between Senator McConnell and Secretary Grimes this fall though their campaign advertisements.”
When polls are this close and the candidates’ only debate yields no clear winner, the name of the game becomes voter turnout.
This places Grimes in a precarious position. Though hosting a greater number of Democrats, Kentucky voter turnout averages traditionally favor Republicans. Mid-term elections themselves see notoriously low voter turnout, and the steepest decline in mid-term voter turnout appears to be among black and Latino demographics, the majority of which are registered Democrats in Kentucky.
While Grimes’ popularity has risen enormously among college-aged voters, their turn-out rate remains among the lowest in Kentucky. Combine all this with the results of a recent Gallup poll depicting lower overall voter engagement in the 2014 mid-terms than in the 2010, and Grimes’ chances of ousting McConnell seem slimmer than ever.
Meanwhile, to McConnell’s benefit, Kentucky’s over-50 crowd provides the strongest showing at the polls in an ever-redder state.
Despite McConnell’s seeming turnout advantage, the increased national attention may have shifted the playing field.
Could the nationalization of Kentucky’s Senate race attract more voters to the polls in November? Rhodebeck, of U of L, said it could.
“Lots of past races that have been quite close, quite competitive, riddled with hundreds, if not thousands, of campaign ads, lots of spending–are elections in which turnout is higher than normal,” said Rhodebeck. “Everything is set up to encourage higher turnout.”
Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said Grimes will be spending time in the next few weeks in northern and western Kentucky, focusing on bridge and infrastructure projects. Grimes is scheduled to appear Wednesday in Louisville with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The McConnell campaign did not return calls for comment.