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General News    H1'ed 8/3/13

Mitch It or Switch it: Sen. McConnell's New Obstacles in Kentucky for 2014

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Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
(Image by Gage Skidmore)
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Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. by Gage Skidmore

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. by Gage Skidmore.

Things are heating up in Kentucky as Tea Party businessman Matt Bevin announced his primary challenge of 5-term incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell last week.

With the general election still over a year away, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the longest serving senator in the state's history, has already raised $15.4 million to defend his seat in 2014, and has boasted over 5300 donors this quarter alone. But with low approval ratings--in December, he had the lowest of any senator in the nation--McConnell may have his hands full with opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.

The Republican leader has previously survived general elections with varied degrees of success. He first won his seat in 1984 in a nail-bitingly close race--49.9% to Democratic incumbent Walter Huddleston's 49.5%. In 2002, when his ratings were high, McConnell ran unopposed for his party, and then swept the general election with 64.7% to his Democratic opponent's 35.3%. The last election? Back to a close race with a 53-47 split over Bruce Lunsford. So with this inconsistent history, perhaps McConnell knows better than to get cocky.

From the Right: The Bevin Battle

His new Republican primary opponent, Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin, after months of rumors, has officially stepped forward. He's running, he asserts, because Kentucky voters are fed up with McConnell's "failed leadership" and aisle-crossing.

"After 30 years in Washington, it is clear that Mitch McConnell has lost touch with our state, its people and our values," Bevin said at the July 24 press conference in the Kentucky State Capitol rotunda where he announced his candidacy.

"It is time for the empty promises to end," he continued, "It is time for us to stop leading from behind, and that's what we have been getting. Leadership from behind."

Although Kentucky voters presently view Bevin more negatively than positively (21-15, respectively, according to a July Wenzel Strategies poll), the McConnell camp is nonetheless taking Bevin's challenge seriously. They recently released an ad attacking Bevin for accepting $200,000 in state grants to help his Connecticut-based bell manufacturing company rebuild after a 2012 fire.

The ad declares: "Bevin's company failed to pay taxes, then got a taxpayer bailout. Bailout Bevin, not a Kentucky Conservative." Another scathing web ad released by McConnell labels Bevin as an "east coast con man."

It's pretty rare for an incumbent to attack a little-known primary candidate this aggressively and this early on, but McConnell's team is simply taking advantage of the fact that two-thirds of Kentucky voters still have no opinion at all on Bevin, leaving him vulnerable (Wenzel Strategies).

From the Left: The Grimes Grind

If McConnell defeats his Tea Party challenger in the May primary, he will still have a lot on his plate. On top of his regular governing duties, the senator would go head-to-head with Kentucky Secretary of State and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in December's general election.

Contradictory to McConnell's own efforts to write off Secretary Grimes as a non-issue, Team Mitch released an auto-tuned YouTube video attacking Grimes' qualifications and portraying her as a "cheerleader" of Obama, who is as unpopular in Kentucky as McConnell. Putting Grimes' own quotes to music and recycling footage from her 2011  Secretary of of State campaign, the "What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?" video flashes colorful text reading "Not ready for primetime," "Sticks to party line," and "Left wing mime."

But Grimes indicated this week in her latest official video that she has no intention of letting McConnell's tactics and fundraising intimidate her ("We'll have this debate, senator, and as you've probably already seen: I don't scare easy.") In fact, she's turned McConnell's own kindergarten rhyming game tactics against him. In the video, Elsie Case, Grimes' grandmother, makes an appearance, plopping down dramatically at the kitchen table with her laptop and asking herself aloud, "What rhymes with Mitch?" Case, who first endearingly appeared in Grimes' Secretary of State promo video two years ago with Grimes' other late grandmother, then answers her own question politely and in a way we don't quite expect, "It's time to switch. Let's get started, honey."

After a rocky start, with a hasty candidacy announcement on July 1 at an event that begin an hour later than scheduled, things are finally picking up in the Grimes camp. Responding to attacks from Republicans that Grimes didn't have her act together and was hardly a serious opponent--not to mention critiques from Democratic consultants that it was "one of the worst rollouts ever"--Grimes has come back a  month later with better organization, a growing online presence (previously nonexistent), and a list of specific critiques of incumbent McConnell. Gone are the delays, vague statements and years-old campaign banners; enter the more professional videos, tighter rallies, cleaner slogan ("Team Switch," a nice counterpoint to McConnell's "Team Mitch") and even a video endorsement from family friend and former President Bill Clinton.

Even McConnell's own "What Rhymes?" video, which easily gets stuck in your head and is spreading quickly with 500,000+ views on YouTube, has arguably contributed to Grimes' gain name recognition among voters, rather than discrediting her as intended.

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Lisa is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently studying Media Studies and Public Policy. She is currently a News & Production intern at KPIX-TV/CBS 5 News in San Francisco, and previously interned at the (more...)

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