Unlikely allies target McConnell's personality, campaign style

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Matt Bevin may become unlikely allies in trying to tear down Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the marquee Senate race of the upcoming cycle.

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Both are signaling plans to frame McConnell with similar themes, targeting his personality and "scorched earth" campaign style as much as his policy positions.

The strategy reflects what his opponents believe to be his greatest vulnerability — McConnell's deep unpopularity among Kentucky voters of both parties.

But it's also a strategy informed by the challenges Grimes and Bevin face in trying to defeat what many observers agree to be one of the shrewdest politicians in the nation.

Grimes, running in a state that went for Mitt Romney with more than 60 percent of the vote, will have a tough time on the issues. She'll have to hope her personal appeal can counteract voters' uneasiness with her party affiliation, and creating a clear personal contrast with McConnell will help her do that.

And Bevin is playing a turnout game: He'll need to rally enthusiastic supporters around him, and hope McConnell backers stay home on primary day. Emerging as the likeable candidate, with a compelling personal story — he has nine children and served in the military — up against an unappealing incumbent will help him make that happen.

The attacks on McConnell's character came even before the race got off to its official start, with various Kentucky Democrats taking shots at the Senate minority leader over the past six months.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D) called McConnell "Dr. Doom" at one point, and prominent Kentucky Democratic donor Nathan Smith told The Hill early in the race that Democrats have “got to decide who’s gonna take on Darth Vader."

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) put it perhaps the most bluntly when he said, at a Kentucky Democratic Party fundraising dinner, "Mitch McConnell sucks."

Grimes and Bevin both have characterized him as a "bully," and Grimes hammered McConnell in a web video announcing her official campaign kickoff for blocking legislation "out of spite.” Bevin, upon launching his bid, slammed McConnell as a “slash and burn” politician who isn’t “man enough to stand on his record."

Though the two candidates are attacking from different ends of the political spectrum, their similar focus is due to the fact that McConnell is facing an electorate disappointed with government and unhappy with the candidate.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said it’s no coincidence that both candidates are touching on similar themes, as they get at the heart of what Kentucky voters believe about McConnell — that he’s a creature of Washington, and emblematic of all its problems.

“I think both lines of attack fade into what Kentucky voters already think about Mitch McConnell, which is that he's the embodiment of what Kentucky voters don't like about Washington,” he said.

A Bevin adviser agreed, suggesting that Bevin’s characterization of McConnell as not being “man enough to stand on his principles” was as much about his politics as his personality.

“The way he votes and his politics are tied to the fact that he is not motivated by principles, he is not motivated by what’s best for Kentucky, he's motivated by this desperate need to retain political power,” the adviser said.

Jonathan Hurst, a spokesman for Grimes, said McConnell’s poor standing in the polls was as much a reflection of the dissatisfaction with Washington as it is distaste for McConnell.

“Washington is unpopular, and Senator McConnell is a leader in Washington, so he owns this dysfunction,” Hurst said.

But Hurst said that, despite the “millions McConnell and his allies have spent trying to lower his negatives, the fact that they’re still so persistently high indicates he has a serious problem in Kentucky.”

While the most recent survey of the race, conducted by Republican firm Wenzel Strategies, indicates McConnell is actually viewed favorably by 53 percent of voters, a higher proportion feel strongly negative about him than the proportion that feels strongly positive.

Ensuring those who have a very unfavorable view of McConnell turn out in a similar proportion on Election Day will be key to victory for his opponents, and continued negative attacks on his character will help animate them.

Previous polls, conducted by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, have shown McConnell to be deeply unpopular in Kentucky, with one posting his approval rating in the state as low as President Obama's.

The Wenzel Strategies poll also indicates that a fifth of the Kentucky electorate is persuadable.

While about 40 percent each say they're certain they'll back the incumbent or his opponent, 20 percent said they'd consider voting for someone else.

The race will be fought among that 20 percent of persuadable voters, and that's where character could come into play in swaying votes — particularly in the primary, where Bevin and McConnell will likely agree on many issues.

Grimes and Bevin have both hammered McConnell on policy, with Bevin charging in his first ad that McConnell voted for "higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges," and Grimes hammering McConnell in her first campaign video for voting "to double Medicare premiums on Kentucky seniors...for failing to stand up for women...and for opposing raising the minimum wage."

But Grimes in particular will have a tough time winning on the issues in a state as red as Kentucky, without much legislative experience to tout, meaning she'll have to find other avenues of attack.

Indeed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggested in a statement from spokeswoman Brook Hougesen that Grimes is targeting McConnell's personality because she's on the wrong side of issues significant to Kentucky voters.

"Alison Lundergan Grimes supports ObamaCare and worked to empower a liberal who in turn has declared a war on coal and her home state – so it's not terribly shocking that she hasn't found any real policy to discuss," Hougesen said.

The focus on personality is as much a strategic choice as it is borne of necessity, however.

Few campaigns are true popularity contests. Republican Scott Brown was defeated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2012, despite leaving the race remarkably popular and relatively unscathed by the fierce back-and-forth of attacks between the two candidates.

Some, however — particularly those won at the margins — are helped along by a candidate who's likeable.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) orchestrated an improbable victory in a state that went for Republican Mitt Romney with nearly 60 percent of the vote, in part, most observers agreed, because she was a remarkably gifted retail politicker, who was able to blanket the sparsely populated state with campaign stops.

Democrats believe hitting McConnell's personality will help tamp down already-low enthusiasm over the candidate, and in a race that could come down to turnout, that enthusiasm could be key to a win.

“This is going to be a campaign where energy is going to be very important,” Yarmuth told The Hill. “You have to rely on enthusiasm to get your voters out. People will get excited, if they like a candidate, they’ll get out and vote for their candidate.”

Grimes, however, could have an advantage there — the young, female political neophyte won the most votes of any statewide Democratic candidate in 2011, and is working to create a distinct contrast between herself and McConnell.

She sought to soften her appeal by dedicating her run to her deceased grandmother in a video that featured her remaining grandmother, who the campaign says will hit the trail with Grimes to gin up support for her bid.

Bevin, too, worked to establish a compelling personal contrast between himself and McConnell in his introductory web video, portraying himself as a man of modest means, growing up in a farmhouse, and a family man, with nine children, some adopted.

Yarmuth warned that Grimes will have to give voters something to vote for, but said it’s “entirely appropriate” to frame McConnell negatively at this point in the campaign.

“I think she does have an obligation to also advance her own agenda, and I think she will,” he said. “But at this point, 14 months out from Election Day, it’s entirely appropriate to cement in voters minds what they already know: That he is a bully, he is a negative campaigner and he always has been.”

Yarmuth added that framing McConnell early on in such negative, personal terms “does help insulate you from some of the attacks.”

“It’s like Ronald Reagan saying, ‘here he goes again,’” he said, referring to a phrase used by Reagan to defuse attacks from Democratic opponent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. “It helps take the edge off some of the attacks and provides some cover from them.”

But Republicans believe the focus on McConnell's personality will at best for Democrats end up a wash, and at worst, will backfire. Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and a former Republican Senate candidate, pointed out that McConnell has faced low approval ratings for years, and still won reelection five times.

“He is who he is, Kentucky voters have elected him a number of times, and it’s not like he’s changed,” he said.

Grayson, who was endorsed by McConnell during his 2010 Senate bid but ultimately lost to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the primary, said he personally likes McConnell, and pointed out that the minority leader is a gifted campaigner in his own right.

"He's tough, he's very disciplined, but when he gives speeches, he does give jokes. He very rarely speaks from prepared remarks, he's not a guy who just sits there and reads a speech. McConnell takes a lot of Q&As, he’s not somebody who's sort of shied away from the public," Grayson said.

And the focus on McConnell’s personality could hurt the challengers’ standing among their own supporters, if they’re turned off by the negative campaigning. Grayson said, in such a scenario, McConnell might come out ahead in a general election fight.

“It's going to be a tough campaign. If [Grimes] is finished attacking and he's finished attacking, she doesn't have the likeability advantage, and he still has the advantage on the policy, on the experience, then McConnell wins,” he said.

But with little room for error in what's expected to be the toughest, and perhaps closest, fight of his career, McConnell's campaign has spent the first few months of the campaign framing the incumbent in positive terms.

They've also used memes, social media and cinematic ads to humanize him and provide him with a comfortable cushion of goodwill going into the negative phase of the campaign.

One Web ad, released to coincide with the Kentucky Derby, features McConnell opining on the race’s historical significance.

“If you listen closely, you can hear the story of Kentucky in the thunder of their hooves,” he says of the Derby thoroughbreds.

And the first ad McConnell's campaign ran on air featured his wife, Elaine Chao, defending McConnell against "far-left special interest" attacks.

"[McConnell] works his heart out to protect Kentucky from Washington's bad ideas, because Mitch loves Kentucky," she says in the ad.

But Barasky said Democrats believe no amount of rebranding can patch McConnell’s damaged standing with Kentucky voters.

“The jury's already out on whether people like Mitch McConnell: They don’t,” he said

The task ahead, he added, is to make sure the race remains focused on that dislike of the Senate minority leader, making it a referendum on McConnell, not President Obama.

“As long as the focus stays on him, it’s going to be a real problem for him,” Barasky said.

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