Democrats land top recruit to challenge McConnell in Kentucky

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced Monday she will challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), giving Democrats their favored candidate and turning the race into one of the 2014 cycle's marquee contests.

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Lundergan Grimes, 34, said she's "no stranger" to being an underdog and took a shot at McConnell over recent ads mocking her for taking her time to decide on a campaign bid. She said the five-term Republican's ads are "based out of fear" of losing his power in Washington. 

She also drew a generational and gender distinction between herself and McConnell, 71, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984. 

Lundergan Grimes stressed that she was Kentucky's "only female constitutional officer" and "the youngest secretary of state across the nation that is a female."

"Kentucky is tired of a senior senator who has lost touch with Kentucky issues, voters and their values," she said. 

McConnell, in a statement emailed to supporters, called Lundergan Grimes's decision to enter the race "courageous."

“Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama’s Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas," he said. 

McConnell's email included a fundraising plea to "help us lead the charge against another rubberstamp for President Obama."

Lundergan Grimes will face a formidable fight against McConnell, who is widely considered to be one of the nation's shrewdest political minds and has so far amassed a war chest of more than $8.6 million to defend his seat. He ran a Web ad campaign last week mocking Lundergan Grimes for having not yet announced her Senate plans. 

"I am no stranger to being an underdog. His ads are based out of fear of losing his 30-year grip on power," Lundergan Grimes said when asked about McConnell's skills as a candidate. "This Kentucky woman does not believe that the voters of Kentucky will be fooled that easily."

Democrats believe McConnell to be vulnerable, citing polling that shows him to be unpopular in his home state. Facing a difficult Senate map for 2014 with few opportunities for offense, Democrats are touting Kentucky as a possible pickup.

Lundergan Grimes became the favored Democratic candidate to challenge McConnell after actress Ashley Judd announced in March that she would not run.

The daughter of a prominent Kentucky Democratic activist who has ties to former President Clinton, Lundergan Grimes won the most votes of any Democratic candidate statewide in 2011. Running on a business-friendly agenda in her first run for an elected office, she defeated a Democratic incumbent and later, Bill Johnson, a Republican with ties to the Tea Party. In both races, Lundergan Grimes had significant fundraising advantages.

Democrats believe she has the profile and fundraising ability to take on McConnell in a race that's expected to be fierce.

Kentucky's lone Democratic congressman, Rep. John Yarmuth, said in a statement, "if she is our party’s nominee, she will have no more enthusiastic supporter and tireless campaigner than me.”

Yarmuth had previously said Lundergan Grimes was doing a "disservice" to the party by waiting too long to announce if she was running. 

Lundergan Grimes pushed back against criticism over the time she took to decide. 

"Make no mistake … this due diligence was not reluctance. It was not hesitancy, but rather a deliberate gathering of all the necessary facts," she said. 

"The question never was, is Mitch McConnell vulnerable? The question never was, does Kentucky deserve a change? The answer to both of those questions remains and is, yes."

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said that Lundergan Grimes's entry into the race makes it a toss-up.

"The Kentucky Senate race is now a toss up. Mitch McConnell is the most unpopular incumbent in the entire country. He is a relic of the past and a symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington. Kentuckians want a change," Cecil said, citing polling done for the committee that showed more than 60 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove of the senator's job performance.

A recent Democratic poll conducted for Senate Majority PAC showed her tied with McConnell. A separate survey from a GOP pollster gave McConnell a 7-point lead. 

Republicans sought prior to Lundergan Grimes's announcement to frame her as unprepared for the rigors of a Senate race. 

She started her news conference Monday more than a half an hour late, prompting Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to tweet criticism of her budding campaign.

"For @AlisonForKY who took months to plan this press conf — no matter the announcement — remarkable how extremely poorly planned it is," tweeted Dayspring.

One McConnell adviser emailed The Hill, prior to her announcement, "if this is her rollout, I have never seen one so incompetent."

When it became clear Monday that Lundergan Grimes was entering the race, Republicans wasted no time in tying her to Obama, who remains unpopular in Kentucky after losing the state by more than 20 points in 2012.

"The next 16 months will provide a great opportunity for Kentuckians to contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government rationed health care with someone who works every day to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas," McConnell said. 

McConnell also made a veiled reference to the power attached to his long tenure in the Senate, a chamber in which seniority can make all the difference.

"Together we’ve invested a lot to ensure that Kentucky’s voice in the U.S. Senate is heard from the front of the line rather than the backbench," he said, "and I intend to earn the support to keep it there.”

Kentucky Republican Party Communications Director Kelsey Cooper called Lundergan Grimes "a rookie rubberstamp for the Obama agenda," and charged that her record as Kentucky secretary of state "indicates she’s not ready for AAA let alone the Major Leagues."

And NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins cited Obama's push for climate change legislation — which he characterized as detrimental to the coal industry — as baggage Lundergan Grimes will have to contend with in her run.

"Just last year, Alison Lundergan Grimes stood proudly at the Democratic National Convention to nominate Barack Obama, who has followed through on his promise to destroy the coal industry; in essence declared a war on the state of Kentucky and the middle class families who call it home," he said.

Lundergan Grimes was asked during her press conference about her views on Obama's healthcare law and climate change push, but she attempted to dismiss the question.

"Regardless of the vote that is issued in this race, we cannot change who our president is. But we can change who we have in Washington representing the state of Kentucky," she said.

Lundergan Grimes said she's running because she determined that she could "make the best move, the best effort" in the state by running for Senate.

"I agree with thousands of Kentuckians that Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction. That Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth," she said of McConnell.

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