Anti-McConnell television ads signal beginning of long reelection campaign

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched his reelection campaign last weekend, he warned supporters that Democrats “want to take me out” in 2014. 

He didn’t have to wait long to see the evidence. 

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Just days after opening his campaign headquarters in Louisville, McConnell is already facing on-air attacks from the left — earlier than any other Republican incumbent in the nation. 

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) began airing TV ads attacking McConnell for his opposition to gun control measures — an issue the group believes could be a winner even in red Kentucky.

The PCCC ad features Kentuckian Rodney Kendrick addressing the camera with his grandson on his lap, calling it “unthinkable that guns meant for war could be used on civilians and children.”

“As a gun owner and a veteran, I support the plan to ban assault weapons and keep guns out of the wrong hands, because I know these guns. I know what they can do,” he says.

The ad closes with Kendrick asking: “Senator McConnell, whose side are you on?”

The ad is backed by a $27,700 buy and will run for a week on broadcast and cable in Louisville and Lexington, and on cable in Washington, D.C. 

The group also commissioned polling from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling that indicates Kentuckians do want to see movement on gun control, despite McConnell’s outspoken opposition to the measures proposed by President Obama.

Eighty-two percent of likely Kentucky voters support background checks “to keep guns out of the wrong hands,” while 13 percent oppose them, the poll found.

There is less consensus in the state, however, about proposals to ban assault weapons. Fifty percent of likely Kentucky voters surveyed support a ban, while 42 percent oppose one. 

McConnell has been a staunch opponent of gun control, issuing a fundraising email pledging to block the expansion of any gun control measures. 

He could be facing a challenge from either the right or left going into 2014, and his opposition to gun control measures is one way in which he can guard against a contested primary.

But the PCCC seems to be banking on a belief that the issue — especially at a time when it’s at the forefront of the national conversation — could be a winner for Democrats in Kentucky.

Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, said the group’s effort reflects a discrepancy between the senator’s legislative views and his constituents’ demands. 

“He’s the most powerful Republican in the Senate and way too often abuses Senate rules to block progress with no accountability back home,” Green said.

McConnell’s campaign hit back at PCCC in a blog post on the senator’s reelection website, portraying the group as “so liberal it attacks Obama from the Left.” 

The McConnell campaign said the PCCC is out of touch with Kentuckians.

McConnell will likely need to remain unwavering in his opposition to expanded gun control measures to make it through a GOP primary, which looms as an unwelcome possibility for the five-term senator.

Tea Party groups in Kentucky have already expressed an interest in launching a challenge against McConnell from the right, and the senator is working to shore up support among conservatives.

While a recent poll showed McConnell leading several potential Democratic candidates — including actress Ashley Judd — the senator is struggling to overcome low approval ratings. 

A Courier-Journal Bluegrass poll in late January found 34 percent of Kentuckians plan to vote against McConnell regardless of who runs against him. 

More than half of registered Republicans said they’d have to see who challenges McConnell to decide if they’re willing to support him, the poll found. 

The PCCC’s willingness to expend funds on an early ad buy indicates some Democrats are bullish on their chances in Kentucky, even though GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 60 percent of the vote in the state in November. 

McConnell’s decision to open his campaign headquarters last weekend — the earliest he’s ever done so before a reelection bid — reflects his concern about a challenge from both sides of the aisle going into 2014.

“Now, the reason you’re here today is ’cause they want to take me out,” he said at the campaign launch, according to local Kentucky news site CN2.

“This is the only race, as I indicated, in the country with any national significance. And that’s why we’re up and running this far in advance.”