By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — A lot of Democrats in Kentucky and across the nation got an early dose of fireworks Monday when Alison Lundergan Grimes announced she will challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014.
The 34-year-old attorney and first-term Democratic Secretary of State is viewed by Democrats as a formidable challenger because of her gender, youth, political enthusiasm and relatively short record. She has been wooed by national and Kentucky Democrats as the woman who can end the 71-year-old McConnell’s three-decade old power grip on the state and the Senate seat.
Grimes made her announcement Monday after a two-hour meeting with supporters, including former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, former Gov. and now state Sen. Julian Carroll, Democratic fundraisers and several state lawmakers.
“I have met with my supporters,” Grimes told the group gathered in a building owned by her father, two-time Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan. At one side was her husband, Andrew, while Collins, Kentucky’s only female governor, stood on the other.
“We have had a great conversation and determined and decided we can next make the best move, make the best difference in the commonwealth of Kentucky by running for the U.S. Senate.”
Grimes has been seen as Democrats’ best hope since actress and activist Ashley Judd announced in March she would not run. But some Democrats had grown impatient with the long decision making process and Grimes had taken some criticism from the press for the same reason.
But she said Monday she was never frightened by the magnitude of a race against the Senate Minority Leader known for his well-financed and hard-hitting campaigns, instead deliberately “gathering all the facts about a decision that is not to be taken lightly.”
McConnell and groups supporting him have already run advertising critical of Grimes, lampooning the long decision making process and linking her to President Barack Obama who is unpopular in Kentucky and the target of McConnell’s speeches.
“The ads are based out of fear of losing his 30-year grip on power,” Grimes said. “And this Kentucky woman does not believe the voters of Kentucky will be fooled that easily.”
Maybe not, but McConnell was quick to mention Obama in his reaction to Grimes’ announcement.
“Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama’s Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes,” McConnell said in a statement released by his campaign.
The statement went on to say the campaign will “contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government rationed health care with someone who works every day to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas.”
In response to a question about the health care law, Grimes went right at McConnell.
“Regardless of the vote issued in this race, we cannot change who our president is,” Grimes said. “But we can change who we have in Washington representing Kentucky.”
That brought enthusiastic cheers from her supporters gathered in the room behind the phalanx of television cameras.
Earlier Grimes criticized McConnell on his tenure which is also the subject of a Democratic PAC ad running on television. It features a quote from McConnell saying he’s “lived on a government paycheck for 30 years” while the words on the screen say McConnell has voted against raising the minimum wage.
“Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth,” Grimes said.
The timing of Grimes’ announcement may have been tied to Federal Election Commission campaign reporting dates. By waiting until Monday, Grimes didn’t have to see an empty campaign fund contrasted with McConnell’s well-stuffed coffers. McConnell has raised nearly $13 million but that doesn’t include how much he raised during the quarter which just ended, so his significant edge will only grow.
But Lundergan, Grimes’ father, said Grimes will run “a top notch campaign.”
McConnell has said he plans to run a presidential-level campaign and hired former Ron Paul and Rand Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton to run it. The campaign has already produced two high-quality, high level production videos about McConnell.
Lundergan was asked if Grimes would hire nationally known campaign professionals.
“We will have the best national people helping in all areas of the campaign,” Lundergan said. “We will run this campaign precinct by precinct.”
Grimes told her supporters she’ll use the next two weeks organizing her campaign.
While McConnell has shown some vulnerability in recent polling, Kentucky has trended ever more Republican in federal elections and Obama is highly unpopular in the state. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, continued to call the 2014 race “likely Republican” after Grimes’ announcement Monday.
Lundergan said Grimes wants the campaign to be about issues and not negative ads. McConnell’s statement also said he looks “forward to a respectful exchange of ideas.”
But voters can expect plenty of negative advertising from all sides, by the candidates and by the surrogate groups sure to pour money into the race as long as it remains competitive in polling because McConnell is a huge national target as the Republican Leader in the Senate who has boasted of blocking Obama’s legislative agenda.
Lundergan is personal friends with former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton who are perhaps the most popular national Democrats in Kentucky. They also are effective fundraisers and campaigners. Lundergan headed up Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign in Kentucky.
Three little known Democrats have previously announced their desire to challenge McConnell: Owensboro contract Ed Marksberry, University of Louisville professor Greg Leichty and Louisville music promoter Bennie J. Smith.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.