Senate Democrats surrender fight against GOP Leader McConnell

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Senate Democrats announced Tuesday they won’t spend any more money on television in Kentucky, throwing in the towel on their fight to oust Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Most polls have shown the race slipping away from nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) for weeks in a contest long considered a top pickup opportunity for Democrats. But with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC) decision, the party is shifting almost solely to defense in hopes of protecting its fragile six-seat majority.

“It’s ominous for the Grimes campaign,” said Al Cross, a longtime political commentator and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. “This race has been slipping away from Democrats very slowly for about two months.”

The DSCC made its withdrawal after Grimes repeatedly stumbled over the question of whether she voted for President Obama. Her dodge last week drew sharp criticism, yet she doubled down during a debate Monday by declaring the “sanctity of the ballot box” a “matter of principle.”

Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Grimes “disqualified herself” by keeping her vote a secret. The McConnell campaign quickly turned his and other media criticism into an ad.

On Tuesday, it appeared DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet (Colo.) and other party leaders agreed with that assessment. 

“She has not performed particularly well in the last few weeks,” said David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser, who told MSNBC that he wasn’t “terribly surprised” Democrats had pulled their ads.

“To effectively take the Fifth on whether you voted for the president or not doesn’t seem like an effective strategy to me,” he said.

While a DSCC official said the party committee might jump back in, other strategists say that’s unlikely because the cost of television will soar in the next three weeks, and failing to reserve spots now would waste piles of cash.

“The DSCC has now spent more than $2 million in Kentucky and continues to make targeted investments in the ground game while monitoring the race for future investments, but is currently not on the air in Kentucky,” the official said.

Guy Cecil, the executive director of the DSCC, on Tuesday evening disputed that the committee has given up on Grimes.

“Just signed a $300,000 wire for the KY Get Out The Vote operation for @AlisonForKY. That’s an interesting view of ‘pulling out of the race,’” he tweeted.

McConnell holds a steady lead in the polls, and on Monday predicted Republicans would take control of the Senate and elect him majority leader.

“There’s a great likelihood that I will be the leader of the majority in the Senate next year, and the majority leader gets to set the agenda not only for the country but to look after Kentucky’s interests,” he said during his only televised debate with Grimes on Monday.

The Grimes campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

While it’s retreating from the Bluegrass State, the DSCC is shifting its resources to other Senate races that were considered longer shots just a few weeks ago, placing $1 million ad buys in South Dakota and Georgia.

Still, those last-ditch efforts are being made as polls show Democratic incumbents trailing in Alaska, Arkansas and Colorado, increasing GOP confidence that it will take over the Senate majority.

Democrats’ decision to pull the plug on television advertising leaves Grimes, the 35-year-old Kentucky secretary of State, largely on her own against McConnell, a five-term incumbent. 

Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic super-PAC that has spent millions of dollars this cycle, has not advertised in Kentucky since September, according to a GOP source tracking media buys. A spokesman for the liberal political action committee did not respond to a request for comment. 

McConnell, by comparison, has received nearly $20 million worth of favorable television ads from two allied outside groups, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership is spending about $1.2 million on television this week and a similar amount next week, according to a Republican tracking ad buys.

The United Mine Workers of America this week launched a $300,000 advertising campaign to help Grimes, but that amount is expected to stretch out over the course of three weeks, and it’s a modest buy compared to what some groups are spending for McConnell. 

The good news for the Democratic hopeful is that if anyone is prepared to go it alone, it’s her. Long a fundraising force, Grimes announced Tuesday she had pulled in a record $4.9 million for the third fundraising quarter and still had $4.4 million in the race for the final three weeks of the campaign. 

Monday’s debate offered Grimes perhaps the last chance  to deliver a game-changing blow against McConnell. By the time the Senate Democratic campaign arm announced its withdrawal on Tuesday, it appeared she had failed to do that.

“My guess is they thought they had the resources to throw one last push at it and if it didn’t move the needle, they were going to pull the plug,” said a Republican strategist close to McConnell’s campaign.

The white flag from Senate Democrats signals the approaching end of what has been a two-year fight for survival by McConnell. With an approval rating dipping below 40 percent in the Bluegrass State, he was ripe for defeat not just from Democrats but from within his own party. 

Tea Party-allied conservative groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project tried to take him out in the highly anticipated Republican primary, but McConnell easily defeated his inexperienced challenger, Matt Bevin. 

Sherman Brown, a Democratic strategist based in Kentucky, held out hope that the national party would return to help Grimes. He noted that the DSCC jumped into the Kentucky Senate race shortly before Election Day in 2004 to help Democratic nominee Dan Mongiardo, who wound up losing to Republican then-Sen. Jim Bunning by fewer than 2 percentage points. 

“It would not be the first time that the national party has pulled out and then comes back in,” said Brown. “I’m not shocked and could see them coming back on Friday. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as folks make out.”

This story was corrected on Oct. 15 to reflect that Dan Mongiardo lost to Sen. Jim Bunning. An earlier version contained incorrect information.