Kentucky environmental lawyer eyes underdog challenge to McConnell

A longtime Kentucky environmental lawyer has emerged as a potential challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) as Democrats wait to learn if Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) will enter the race.

 Tom FitzGerald (D), chairman of the Kentucky Resources Council, says he understands he’d be the underdog in a race against McConnell, whom he described as one of the “nastiest” politicians in the nation.

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But FitzGerald believes he could be competitive against McConnell if he runs as a pragmatic nonpartisan, despite his decades-long career in environmental activism and lobbying.

 “I’ve heard, over the years, that people think that I would restore some public confidence in that office because I have been very pragmatic in the way that we’ve tried to approach public policy problems in recent years,” FitzGerald told The Hill.

 FitzGerald said he became interested in the race after a “prominent Democratic donor and activist” contacted him and urged him to run.

 He has spent the past few weeks contacting current and former lawmakers and party officials, some of whom he knows from his career in environmental law, to discuss the pros and cons of running.

 FitzGerald appeared at a legislative breakfast during Kentucky Derby weekend, where he planned to connect with state lawmakers and gauge support for his potential bid.

 Democrats have spent several months trying to recruit a credible challenger to take on McConnell, who polls show is one of the most unpopular senators in the nation.

 Actress Ashley Judd announced in March she would not seek the Democratic nomination after months of speculation about a potential campaign.

 The spotlight has subsequently shifted to Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old secretary of state and daughter of Jerry Lundergan, a former head of the Kentucky Democratic party.

 Jonathan Miller, a prominent Kentucky Democrat who aided Judd’s exploration of a run against McConnell, said he had spoken with FitzGerald about his interest in the race.

 Miller said he told FitzGerald that Lundergan Grimes was the top pick for most Democrats.

 “He and I discussed this, and I think he agrees,” Miller said.

 “I still think that the only remaining person who has not said that she’s not running and would bring to the table an existing statewide name recognition and a pretty demonstrated ability to raise money is Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

 Miller said that while FitzGerald has been an “extraordinary leader” for Kentucky over the past decade, “he would begin with a severe handicap in that he’s unknown to most of the state and hasn’t ever been out raising money.”

 FitzGerald said he’s reached out to Lundergan Grimes, but as of last week, hadn’t been able to connect with her.

 Lundergan Grimes is widely considered the strongest possible contender for the seat. She received more votes than any Democratic statewide candidate in 2012 and would have little trouble raising money because of her deep connections to the Democratic Party.

 But Lundergan Grimes is also looking at a potential run for Kentucky attorney general in 2015 and hasn’t yet made a decision on her future political plans.

 FitzGerald is known for his work to reduce the environmental impacts of coal mining and lobbied in the past legislative session against a bill to deregulate the landline telephone industry in the state.

 A former appointee of Gov. Steve Beshear (D), FitzGerald resigned from his post on two state boards in protest of the governor’s environmental policies.

 FitzGerald said his decision wouldn’t ultimately depend on whether Lundergan Grimes enters the race.

 “I think she’s going to have to make her own decision, and I’ll make mine, but certainly I want to have a conversation with her. I don’t know that it’s really a situation where my decision would be contingent on hers,” he said.

 After news of his interest in the race broke late last month, FitzGerald said he’s received notes from “conservative Republicans, current coal miners, folks that have been longtime supporters of McConnell” expressing support for his run.

 McConnell had nearly $9 million cash on hand for his reelection bid at the end of March, and he is expected to raise millions more for what observers believe will be a fierce fight against any Democratic contender.

 FitzGerald said he’s aware of, but undaunted by, the challenge.

 “It’ll probably be a very nasty, very personal campaign against me, but I’ve never ducked from a good fight,” he said.