Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faces an enormous challenge in the coming months: defining his general election opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, without offending female voters.
The Senate minority leader in Tuesday’s primary is poised to trounce his opponent, businessman Matt Bevin, whose campaign struggled out of the gate. McConnell quickly pounced on Bevin, accusing him of inflating his resume and supporting government bailouts.
Democrats and women’s groups last year accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of sexism when a GOP spokesman said that Lundergan Grimes was “incapable of articulating her own thoughts” and called her an “empty dress.”
Another McConnell ally, state Rep. Stan Lee (R), sparked an outcry last month when he called her “fat.”
“We’ve already seen their playbook on her. It’s to make a lot of misogynistic comments about she’s a woman and not all that smart, and she’s an empty dress,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “There’s really no cohesive message there that’s appealing to voters.”
Democrats will try to drive a wedge between McConnell and female voters by highlighting these attacks and his opposition to the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which promotes pay equity between men and women.
A secretly recorded meeting between McConnell and his campaign advisers in February of last year revealed they did not have much opposition research to use against Lundergan Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of State. The best nugget they had at the time was her announced support for the 2008 Democratic Party platform.
Six months out from the general election, McConnell and Lundergan Grimes are consistently tied in the polls, largely because of the senator’s low approval rating.
A recent Bluegrass Poll showed that 56 percent of registered voters disapprove of how he’s handling his job in Washington, and 29 percent have a favorable opinion of him.
The figures are especially worrying for McConnell after he has already spent $9 million from his own campaign funds this election cycle. Outside groups have spent about $6 million on TV and radio ads, about half of it on ads attacking Lundergan Grimes. Her campaign provided data tracking media buys by outside groups.
McConnell, 72, has always made his campaigns about his opponents. He defeated Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston (D-Ky.) in 1984 by running a now famous ad depicting a team of bloodhounds searching for the incumbent, who missed votes to give paid speeches. Six years later, he slammed his Democratic challenger Harvey Sloane as an Ivy League-educated elitist who inherited $1 million from his “mommy.”
In 2008 — a bad year for the GOP — McConnell won a close race against Democrat Bruce Lunsford. In that contest, he repeatedly noted his “clout” in Washington, suggesting Lunsford would have little in the nation’s capital as a freshman.
This year, McConnell went after Bevin by slamming a misleading claim the Louisville businessman made about being educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on his LinkedIn profile, his acceptance of a taxpayer-funded bailout for a factory that burned down in Connecticut and, most damaging, his signature on a letter praising the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
McConnell plans to insulate himself from Democratic salvos by using his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, as a campaign surrogate.
His aides emphasize that his leadership office’s chief of staff is a woman and more than 50 percent of his staff is female.
In what might seem like an abrupt change from past tactics, McConnell’s campaign says it wants to focus squarely on the issues after Tuesday’s primary, not on Lundergan Grimes.
“A campaign on the issues is incredibly beneficial for us. A lot of people expect a bruising and bloody race, and we prefer to have debate on the issues,” said Josh Holmes, a senior adviser to McConnell’s campaign.
Holmes argues that Kentucky voters side with McConnell and Republicans over President Obama and Democrats on issues ranging from ObamaCare and regulations on coal-fired power plants, to the economy and immigration reform.
“This has nothing to do with gender. We have one candidate in Mitch McConnell who represents the values of the electorate and another in Grimes who has to hide her views from the electorate,” he said.
At last year’s strategy meeting, which was recorded by a liberal activist, McConnell’s campaign aides zeroed in on Lundergan Grimes’s general support for the Democratic agenda, highlighting cap and trade, the assault weapons ban, tax hikes and Wall Street reform.
D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said McConnell would have already launched a negative barrage against Lundergan Grimes if he thought it would be effective.
“He could have started pounding her, and he didn’t. I expect there’s some recognition that going negative against Grimes in the same way he did against Bevin may not be as successful,” Voss said.
Lundergan Grimes plans to make the campaign a referendum on McConnell.
Jonathan Hurst, a senior adviser to her campaign, blasted McConnell for turning Washington into a “gridlocked embarrassment,” echoing a charge made by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“McConnell blocked a measure to help veterans find jobs and left Kentucky flood victims without relief,” Hurst said in a statement.