PADUCAH, Ky. — Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can almost taste becoming Senate majority leader, but first he has to make sure he isn’t the Republican who costs the GOP its shot at chamber control.
His strengths and weaknesses were on full display in his battle against Alison Lundergan Grimes this weekend, underscoring just how tough his race is against the Democrat.
But Grimes must first overcome her own party if she’s to slay the biggest Republican target out there. And at every turn, Republicans are sure to tie her to an unpopular president even as she works to campaign as a Clinton, not Obama, Democrat.
The Obama factor
President Obama is so unpopular in Kentucky, he leaves a sour taste in even most Democrats’ mouths there.
Gerald Watkins, a Democratic state senator from Paducah who was keeping time for the speakers at Fancy Farm, said over the ruckus of both sides’ supporters that “there is frustration with the president” among Democrats in the Bluegrass State.
“He’s a nice guy, but we need some leadership, and so it makes it difficult for Democrats down-ticket because you have to separate yourself from the president to be successful in the South, and certainly in Kentucky,” he said.
Watkins said Grimes needs to distance herself from the White House “more than anything else in the race.”
She has indeed made that a central focus of her campaign, going so far as to take out an ad in local papers knocking the president on his proposed regulations on power plants.
Because coal is so central to the state’s economy, Obama’s energy policies make for especially potent attacks. Still, her campaign feels it can mitigate some of that with an endorsement from the United Mine Workers of America. Grimes announced the nod at Fancy Farm; the group sat out the last Senate race and didn’t endorse Obama.
In an interview with The Hill, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst touted that endorsement as a potential game-changer.
“It’s going to be hard for Senator McConnell to continue that narrative now because it becomes coal operators versus the coal miners, and I think the coal miners and those that are across Eastern and western Kentucky clearly see now that they have a candidate to get behind,” he said.
To further distance herself from the president, Grimes has worked to tie herself instead to the Clintons, longtime family friends. Bill Clinton filmed a video for her at her kickoff event and will campaign with her again at two stops on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is expected to stump for her at some point.
McConnell’s team admits the Clintons can rally the base, but says it isn’t concerned about their presence moving undecided voters — and that’s where, both campaigns say, the race will be fought.
Who lays claim to change?
Grimes draws crowds in the hundreds nearly everywhere she goes, and has a folksy, affectionate appeal that McConnell can’t replicate. His own campaign even privately admits he’s not one to be described as necessarily charismatic.
One campaign aide said, however, the campaign believes Kentuckians aren't necessarily looking for a buddy in their next senator.
“They’re not interested in somebody who they can hang out with on their living room couch," the aide said.
Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and current campaign adviser, said what Kentuckians do want is a senator that's capable.
“The vast majority of Kentuckians want somebody who can do the job,” he said. “You’re voting ultimately, one, for whether or not they’ll represent your interests in the Senate — she’s got a huge barrier to climb there — and two, whether or not this person can get something done.”
While McConnell’s ace in the hole may be Obama’s own drag, the minority leader knows he can’t run merely against the president. His argument: I’m someone who gets things done in both Kentucky and Washington.
The campaign paints Grimes as unprepared for the Senate, pointing to her repeated refusal to get specific or her muddled answers when asked policy questions.
It’s a tendency that has even some Democrats concerned.
“I agree with that,” Watkins said of the criticism. “She can’t afford to sit back for weeks and let him define her. Then it’ll be too late because everybody will believe it. So while she has a chance to, she needs to be more definitive about what her positions are ... and make sure that people know she’s an independent senator, that she’s not a stooge for President Obama,” he said.
The focus from McConnell’s campaign on the GOP leader’s influence is also an attempt to mitigate some of the damage it privately admits has been done by Grimes hammering McConnell on job creation. It acknowledges his comments, as quoted by a local paper, that economic development in the state is “not my job” have been a thorn in the senator’s side.
Cheryl Grana, vice chairwoman of the McCracken County GOP and a McConnell supporter, said, “It’s not his job to go up there and hunt for jobs in Kentucky.”
She added that one of his main assets in the race is he’s a “seasoned veteran, he understands the workings of the Senate and Washington in general, and knows how to get things done.” But pressed on exactly what he’s gotten done, Grana demurred.
“He’s done a lot for the state of Kentucky, but I mean I can’t just rattle you off anything that you want to know right now,” she said.
Indeed, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) revved up a crowd at the Graves County GOP breakfast on Saturday morning, he mentioned McConnell’s work securing an amendment boosting the hemp industry in Kentucky, a vote on a balanced-budget amendment — which never passed — and his efforts to keep the GOP unified in its opposition to ObamaCare — far from a challenge considering the widespread opposition to the law among voters.
The thin bill of accomplishments Paul touted highlights one of McConnell’s main challenges: dysfunction in the Senate, which Democrats have argued is largely due to his intractable opposition to anything and everything Obama proposes.
But that’s exactly why McConnell’s team isn’t worried about congressional approval dragging McConnell down. His supporters see him as a stalwart against the Obama administration’s attempts to push progressive policy.
And McConnell is arguing that, if he’s elected to the Senate, he’ll be the one to bring change to Washington by finally sitting in the majority leader’s chair he’s long coveted.
“There’s only one way, just one way to change America in 2014; there’s only one way to begin to go in a different direction. That’s to change the Senate and make me the leader of a new majority to take America in a different direction,” McConnell told the Fancy Farm crowd.
Both campaigns are spinning the tight polls as good news: McConnell’s team sees the momentum moving in his direction in the final stretch, but Grimes’s campaign says the fact that it’s a margin of error race in such a red state is already a success.
“The goal is, stay close, stay close and stay close. You hope you stay close by Christmas, you hope you stay close going into [the Kentucky] Derby — and we sit here tied with the minority leader after Fancy Farm,” said Hurst.
—This piece was updated to clarify Josh Holmes' quotes.