Democrats in Washington are taking a risky bet by quadrupling their investment in Alison Lundergan Grimes, a young and largely unproven challenger, who is running against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellManchin backs raising debt ceiling with reconciliation if GOP balks Biden needs to be both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside Billionaire tax gains momentum MORE (Ky.).
Spending a fresh $1.4 million on a statewide TV ad bashing McConnell is a gamble for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which has six vulnerable incumbents and a long-held Democratic seat in Iowa to defend.
In Kentucky, Democrats are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Recent polls show that Grimes is trailing McConnell by an average of 5 points. Massively boosting party spending on her campaign when independent handicappers view her as a long shot could attract criticism — especially from sitting senators worried about their own races. Yet, a decision not to go after McConnell in October would be seen as ceding the race to the minority leader.
Some operatives say the key to Democrats retaining the Senate is to play effective defense. Republicans have to net six seats to claim control of the upper chamber.
But many Democratic donors would love to take down the Senate GOP leader, whom they view as the Senate’s obstructionist in chief. And they like playing offense.
“We’re constantly hearing … how the Republican conference is targeting Democrats so, quite frankly, it’s refreshing to see the game played the other way,” said Alan Kessler, a major Democratic donor.
“I wouldn’t sell Alison Grimes short. I’ve met her; I’ve talked to her. She is a real go-getter,” he said.
“When he said his No. 1 objective was getting rid of Barack Obama, what kind of message is that for the American people?” Kessler added.
McConnell said in the fall of 2010 that his top political priority was to limit Obama to one term in the Oval Office.
Some political experts expressed surprise that the Senate Democratic campaign committee thinks Grimes can win, given the direction of recent polls.
“When I saw them start up, I thought, ‘Well, maybe they made a commitment long ago that they would be there in October.’ My guess is, they reserve the right to not be there in late October because they’re in too much of a bind to spend money in a race where they don’t think there’s any chance,” said Al Cross, a longtime political commentator and professor at the University of Kentucky.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report, said the conventional wisdom is that Grimes has an uphill path to victory.
“She’s been behind in every poll but one for months,” she said. “The one poll she was ahead by a point was her own. I just think there’s been a conventional wisdom developing that she’s in trouble.”
An internal Grimes poll from mid-September conducted by The Mellman Group showed her leading McConnell 43 percent to 42 percent.
Duffy said the DSCC is “trying to pump some life” into her campaign.
Robert Zimmerman, another major Democratic donor, applauded what he called a “bold” strategy to financially back Grimes despite the skepticism of Beltway pundits.
“The decision by the DSCC is absolutely a bold and smart decision, and that’s what it takes to keep the Democratic majority. The conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., never has any correlation to political reality. I’m not worried about that,” he said.
Before the week, the committee had invested $500,000 in the Grimes campaign. The DSCC’s independent expenditure arm made the decision to launch the new ad.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the DSCC, argued that pundits predicted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would lose his 2010 reelection race, and he instead won it comfortably.
“Reporters who doubt Democratic pollsters in general and especially [Mellman] have regularly been proven wrong,” he said.
“This is still very much a margin-of-error race,” he added.
The DSCC’s ad criticizes McConnell, labeling him an insider who has attended “thousands of fundraisers,” “protecting his special perks” and “voting himself six pay raises” during his three-decade career in the Senate.
“The longer he’s there, the more Washington’s changed him,” a narrator intones. “After 30 years, it’s just inevitable.”
A spokeswoman for McConnell’s campaign jabbed at Grimes for relying on the support of a Democratic Party committee funded by liberal donors.
“Alison Grimes is now relying on a group funded almost exclusively by Obama enthusiasts who support an agenda that could not be more hostile to our way of life in Kentucky,” said Allison Moore.
The new infusion of cash narrows the spending disparity between Grimes and McConnell.
The McConnell-Grimes race has shattered fundraising records in Kentucky.
A Democratic source who tracks media buys said McConnell’s campaign and allied outside groups have spent $23 million, while Grimes’s campaign and allied liberal groups have spent $11.2 million. Of the outside groups, the Senate Majority PAC has spent the most to help Grimes, a total of $4.5 million, according to the Democratic source.
A Republican source who tracks media buys said the Democratic estimate undercounted how much two outside groups, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition have spent to help McConnell.
The GOP source said those two groups have spent a total of about $20 million on ads promoting McConnell or criticizing various issues affiliated with Grimes.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership is a super-PAC, and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is a social welfare organization classified under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.