Ashley Judd’s exit from the Kentucky Senate race may have dimmed the spotlight on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) reelection efforts, but a handful of wildcards there are still drawing attention.
Democrats have yet to front a candidate, and it’s unclear if their supposed top pick, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, will jump in the race. The Tea Party is still seeking a challenger to McConnell. And National Democrats are gearing up for what they see as one of their best opportunities at a pickup in 2014.
Judd’s exit cost Democrats the star power that would have helped keep the race in the national spotlight, and allowed Democrats to draw the kind of money they’ll need to fight a stalwart politician like McConnell. But Judd’s exit also cleared a path for the potential candidacy of Lundergan Grimes, whom Kentucky Democrats see as a stronger challenger to McConnell.
The 34-year-old Secretary of State, unlike Judd, has little political or personal baggage to provide opponents with fodder for attack ads. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a well-connected former Democratic Party chairman with deep pockets, who previously told The Hill he would “try to support all of [Lundergan Grimes’] desires and wishes.”
But she’s not a sure thing. Multiple Kentucky Democrats close to Lundergan Grimes said she had only just begun to look seriously at the race this week, after focusing on getting her initiatives passed through the Kentucky legislature, and there’s speculation that she’d rather run for governor in 2015.
If Lundergan Grimes decides against it, Democrats find themselves with few other options. Including Judd, 10 Democrats considered to be potential contenders have ruled themselves out.
“The list gets pretty narrow after that,” said Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
“You don’t hear a lot of other names of prominent Democrats, which I think is a bit of a shame because any prominent Democrat that has any bonafides at all...would have a shot.”
Stumbo cited Attorney General Jack Conway as another strong contender, but Conway previously said he won’t run and a spokesperson told The Hill that he hasn’t reconsidered following Judd’s decision.
McConnell has had a head start on fundraising and messaging; he’s already released two ads, both positive spots, one featuring his wife. Any Democrat will need to enter the race soon if they hope to make up for lost time.
Though their relationship was rocky at the start, McConnell’s subsequent outreach effort to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) may have been one of the shrewdest moves of his reelection campaign.
After Paul, a conservative and Tea Party favorite, won the GOP nomination for Senate in 2010, despite opposition from McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader moved quickly to embrace the grassroots upstart, sending him staff support for his general election campaign and, since then, backing many of his legislative initiatives.
Most recently, McConnell gave Paul the okay for his now famous talking filibuster, and in a move that displayed particular political acumen, joined him and a handful of other GOP up-and-comers on the Senate floor in support of the talkathon.
He has also vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and supports Paul’s initiative to audit the Federal Reserve, a typically libertarian project that should boost McConnell’s credibility with conservatives at home.
Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush appointee and McConnell campaign staffer, said that McConnell’s outreach to Paul was likely the reason he hadn’t yet seen a primary challenger emerge.
“Having that kind of voice validating your efforts has been invaluable to Sen. McConnell as he embarks on his senatorial campaign,” he said.
“Someone who runs at him from the right is going to be lonely.”
McConnell also hired Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his own effort, bringing with him Benton’s connections to the grassroots in Kentucky.
Paul now campaigns and hosts fundraisers for McConnell, and is frequently quoted in the news praising his work for Kentucky. As the race heats up, look for him to remain a prominent figure and even expand his efforts to reelect his senior colleague.
A Lundergan Grimes candidacy would bring with it a unique advantage: Enthusiastic support from Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Alison’s father, Jerry Lundergan, was Hillary Clinton's Kentucky campaign chairman in 2008, and the Clintons are "friends" of the Lundergans, he said. Democrats in the state say Bill and Hillary would be likely to support Grimes if she were to run, and Bill Clinton urged Grimes to run during a meeting in the state this month.
The Clintons are prominent political stars, and Bill Clinton is well-liked among southern Democrats. His help on the stump could provide Lundergan Grimes a substantial boost in support — and both his and Hillary’s help behind-the-scenes with fundraising would help her amass the small fortune she’ll need to challenge McConnell.
McConnell spent $21 million in 2008, and is prepared to spend more than that in the upcoming race, making it a likely bet for one of the nation’s most expensive of the cycle.
At the start of 2013, he posted more than $7 million cash in his campaign war chest, a considerable amount for an incumbent but only a fraction of what he’ll need to defend himself.
One outside group targeted him with ads on his opposition to expanded gun control measures, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched its first ad of the cycle this week on Kentucky radio charging that he’s beholden to “Washington special interests.”
National Democrats see McConnell as one of the nation’s most vulnerable senators, and Kentucky as one of their best pickup opportunities in a cycle that will have them playing far more defense than offense, with a handful of Democrats up for reelection in red states that President Obama lost in 2012.
Progressive groups, including the League of Conservation Voters PAC, Workers’ Voice, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, all confirmed to The Hill that they’re ready to launch organizational efforts and on-air attacks in the race.
But McConnell, if he needs it, will have the help of powerful GOP outside spending groups as well, including the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce. Spokespeople for both groups told The Hill they’re fully behind his reelection bid.
“We're prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that every NRA member and gun owner in Kentucky knows that Senator McConnell has stood strong in support of their freedoms,” said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA.
Democrats insist the money issue will eventually cease to be crucial, as the air war is likely to reach a saturation point, where a few more million dollars poured into attack ads won’t make a difference.
But any Democrat wanting to stay competitive to at least that saturation point will need to be a prolific fundraiser both within Kentucky and nationwide. Pundits will be watching to see how much national money the race attracts, as it will be an indication of how viable the Democratic nominee is, and how vulnerable McConnell is, as the race goes on.
McConnell’s alliance with Paul hasn’t entirely neutralized the Tea Party threat in Kentucky, and grassroots leaders say they’re reaching out to potential contenders behind the scenes and hope to have a primary challenger in the race by June.
David Adams, a Kentucky strategist who managed Paul’s 2010 campaign and is leading the effort to recruit a challenger, said he’s been talking to a number of interested potential candidates, but wouldn’t offer names.
Conservative critics of McConnell are wary of his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program that Congress passed in 2008, and charge that he hasn’t done enough to block President Obama’s agenda.
Adams said Paul’s “stamp of approval” on McConnell had done little to convince him that the Senate Minority Leader is willing to stand for conservative principles.
“I'm frankly surprised, at this point, how energetic the growing opposition is,” he said.
One possible candidate, local businessman Matt Bevin, indicated his interest in the race earlier this year, but soon after his name emerged a number of Tea Party leaders in Kentucky expressed skepticism about his potential run. Some at the grassroots level have also floated John Kemper, a former GOP candidate for Kentucky Auditor, as a possible candidate.
Tea Party and grassroots groups — including FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots and Club for Growth — have been critical of McConnell before, and could pour millions into the race if a viable challenger emerges.
Although McConnell’s likely to make it through a primary, he probably won’t do so unscathed. He’s entering the race already at a disadvantage, unable to break 50 percent against Judd in the most recent GOP poll of the race.
A primary campaign that raised his negatives could hobble him for a general in which he’ll have to face unending attacks from the left, and will distract him at a time when he’d likely rather be launching attacks on the Democratic candidate.