Senate race also on minds on Derby Day

The horses make the headlines, but the members of Kentucky's political class attending the Kentucky Derby will have their minds on the developing Kentucky Senate race even as their eyes are on the action on the fields of Churchill Downs.

With the contours of the upcoming Senate race still unclear, savvy politicos will be paying attention to who's rubbing elbows with whom in an attempt to parse the intentions of the state’s most closely watched Democrat, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

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Lundergan Grimes, Democrats' top pick to run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will attend the big race, and on Friday night headed to two private Derby-eve parties at the homes of Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and Attorney General Jack Conway (D), sources say.

Those events will give her the opportunity to gauge her support among Kentucky's political class, and also to seek out potential donors.

Scott Jennings, a Kentucky GOP strategist and former McConnell campaign operative, said the weekend is one of the best opportunities of the year to establish connections for aspiring candidates.

"A lot of political insiders are there. People who are interested in running for political office make this a day where they can shake a lot of hands. More specifically than that, the donor pool is pretty good. In certain areas of the track you can talk to various donors," he said.

One section of the field, known as "Millionaire's Row," is full of celebrities, politicians and the well-heeled Kentuckians that fund the state's political aspirants. It’s a hub for politicians looking to establish or cultivate connections.

But Lundergan Grimes is likely to also face question after question about the probability of a run, on which she hasn't yet made a decision.

To preempt those conversations, Lundergan Grimes revealed a new line of response on Thursday. Speaking to local news station WHAS11 at Churchill Downs, where the race takes place, Lundergan Grimes said she wouldn't have a decision before the Derby — but also wouldn't be bullied on the race.

"I won't be bullied into any decision," she said. 

"I will tell you that the bully tactics that we see displayed are a continuation of those exemplified in the recording that has surfaced by Mitch McConnell. And this Kentucky woman won't be bullied."

Lundergan Grimes also characterized McConnell as "the very essence of what's wrong with Washington right now."

But Democrats in Kentucky admit Lundergan Grimes gives them their best chance at taking down McConnell, so she's unlikely to go without some semi-serious cajoling from politicos this weekend at the Derby.

And her moves this weekend will be parsed by political spectators. Showing up with a longtime member of the Kentucky Democratic establishment — a former governor, or Kentucky House Speaker, for instance — could be a show of political support on Lundergan Grimes' part, a possible indication she's readying a Senate bid.

As Nate Smith, a prominent Democratic donor in the state, put it, "if you're into politics in Kentucky, this is a must."

"There's been politicking all day long. This is the creme de la creme of politics in Kentucky," he said on Friday

While Lundergan Grimes continues to consider her options, McConnell is using the Derby to his benefit. His campaign issued a video on Friday about the race that features McConnell speaking about it and what it means for Kentucky, an effort to boost the narrative of McConnell as Kentucky’s native son.

The video is being targeted to mobile devices near the racetrack, and online throughout Kentucky.

A spokesman for McConnell’s campaign said he’d be watching with his wife and “friends” this weekend, but declined to give further details on his guests or plans.

It’s not just an opportunity for Kentucky politicos to make connections, either. Politicians come from near and far to glad-hand and gawk at the confluence of sport, celebrity and political power particular to Derby Day.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) are just a few of the varied politicians expected or confirmed to appear at the race this weekend.