By Alexandra Jaffe - 07/03/13 09:00 AM EDT
Democrats believe their path to victory over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) runs through the generational divide between him and Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes, a candidate half the Kentucky senator’s age whose campaign is already targeting younger, female voters.
Kentucky political activists say the Democratic contender must also cast McConnell as a relic of old-style Washington politics — and the personification of Senate dysfunction — if she is to have any chance of upsetting the five-term Republican.
“There may be people who like his policies but people don’t necessarily talk about him as if he’s Oprah Winfrey. It’s not as if he’s likable.”
Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of State, announced her campaign to challenge McConnell on Monday. She said her opponent had “lost touch” with voters after nearly three decades in Washington.
Advisers to Lundergan Grimes have indicated their plan is to draw a sharp contrast with McConnell, portraying her as an optimistic, likable alternative to the incumbent, who polls have shown is one of the most unpopular senators in the nation.
The most obvious difference is age. Lundergan Grimes, first elected to statewide office in 2011, is 34. McConnell is 71 and was elected to the Senate in 1984, when Lundergan Grimes was turning 6.
Lundergan Grimes played up her youth and gender at her campaign launch on Monday, stressing that she was Kentucky’s “only female constitutional officer” and “the youngest secretary of State across the nation that is a female.”
Lundergan Grimes’s supporters believe McConnell’s campaign style — the Senate minority leader is known to run personal, caustic, take-no-prisoners campaigns — could backfire if used against a young female, and drive up his negatives.
There are already signs Lundergan Grimes is gearing up for a fierce race. She has hired Mark Putnam, a veteran of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s 2012 victory in North Dakota, to run her communications operation.
Message discipline may well be key to her chances.
She raised eyebrows among pundits on Monday by appearing to distance herself from President Obama, responding to a question about his policies by saying “we cannot change who our president is.”
The comment underscored her challenge: finding ways to appear independent from the Obama administration and his healthcare and climate policies (both unpopular in Kentucky) without alienating national Democrats whose help she’ll need to run a competitive race.
Lundergan Grimes proved herself as a fundraiser in her 2011 race, raising more than $1 million, and she’ll need to demonstrate that skill more than ever against McConnell, who has amassed $8.6 million already.
Observers predict Lundergan Grimes will need upward of $20 million in her war chest.
Although a relative newcomer to statewide politics, she can tap deep political connections through her father, former Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan.
Jonathan Hurst, an adviser helping Lundergan Grimes with her campaign, said Jerry Lundergan would work to put the full organizational and financial muscle of the Kentucky Democratic party, which he helped rebuild as chair, behind his daughter.
Bill and Hillary Clinton, who remain popular in Kentucky, are family friends and Lundergan Grimes could get a boost if either works on her behalf.
Hillary Clinton won the Kentucky primary in 2008, and enthusiasm for her potential 2016 bid could benefit Lundergan Grimes.
Even as she leans on Democrats from outside Kentucky for organizational and fundraising help, Lundergan Grimes will need to be careful not to open up opportunities for McConnell to tie her to Obama or national Democrats.
That means visits from Obama allies or blue-state Democrats will likely be avoided.
Republicans are confident Lundergan Grimes’s youth and gender won’t be enough to counteract McConnell’s shrewd and growing political organization, his deep pockets or her own relative inexperience on the trail.
They’re already citing what one McConnell adviser characterized as an “incompetent” campaign launch Monday. The event began late and featured campaign signage from Lundergan Grimes’s 2011 state campaign, not her new Senate bid.
The GOP cast the event as evidence she’s not ready for the Senate.
“I think most people expect their U.S. senators to be prepared and to be thoughtful in their decision-making and to represent the views of the state, and so far Lundergan Grimes is 0 for 3,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brad Dayspring.
Dale Emmons, a Lundergan Grimes adviser, laughed off Republican criticism of her campaign launch as an “inside Washington game.”
“I’m not going to allow someone in Washington to dictate what a winning campaign should look like in Kentucky,” he said.
Lundergan Grimes will need to quickly hone her message — which at times in the day following her announcement seemed murky.
“We just think that the country and certainly our state needs to go in a different direction,” said Emmons.
Hurst said he’d let the candidate speak for herself on her message.
“I think you’ll see that Alison is her own person. She will make it very clear where she stands on the issues,” Hurst said, adding that Lundergan Grimes is building her campaign apparatus for a full rollout that will come later this month.
McConnell’s campaign sought to appear unruffled in the day following Lundergan Grimes’s announcement.
It released a satirical “campaign theme song” that features auto-tuned clips of Lundergan Grimes.
The ad, titled “What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes,” portrayed the Democrat as primarily concerned about promoting herself, not Kentucky interests.
“We, at Team Mitch, are nothing if not magnanimous, so decided to welcome her to the race with what we imagine her campaign theme song might be. The song highlights her signature initiative to ‘preserve, protect, and promote Alison Lundergan Grimes,’” said campaign manager Jesse Benton.