By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
There’s no time for a breather for political observers on the day after the primary that formalized the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell and Democratic state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“I actually jumped out of bed this morning. We’ve had May 21 circled on the calendar for months,” said Josh Holmes, senior advisor to McConnell’s campaign.
McConnell’s camp was already putting out their own interpretation of the vote totals Tuesday and Grimes was on the air with a new ad, promising voters she is her own woman and won’t take direction from anyone, including the president McConnell wants to campaign against – Barack Obama.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a political action committee supporting McConnell, was also up with an ad which claims Obama and Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “rolled out the red carpet” for Grimes.
Grimes also was out on the road. She went to Beattyville in Lee County where McConnell stumbled on an answer to a reporter’s question about bringing jobs to Lee County. McConnell last month told Edmund Shelby, editor and general manager of the Beattyville Enterprise, that it isn’t the job of a U.S. Senator to create jobs but rather the responsibility of the state economic development agency.
Grimes wants the race to be a referendum on McConnell who she dubs the “Guardian of Gridlock” and who, she claims, has ignored Kentucky’s working families’ need for jobs.
Grimes’ campaign manager, Jonathan Hurst, said the Beattyville visit provides a “strong contrast with Sen. McConnell who is in D.C. at a fundraiser for a Republican candidate for governor while Alison’s out talking about jobs.”
On the same day, McConnell penned a letter to Grimes congratulating her on her win in the Democratic Primary and suggesting three “Lincoln-Douglas style debates” – unencumbered by a live audience or reporters.
Hurst said he hadn’t seen the letter but said Grimes has previously offered to debate McConnell.
McConnell proposed that the debates occur before Labor Day, which Hurst suggested might not be acceptable because they would occur before voters traditionally begin to focus on the fall elections.
They may not have that luxury this year.
McConnell has been on the air with ads for more than a year and has spent millions on the race so far, partially to put down the primary challenge by Matt Bevin. McConnell and Grimes both easily outpolled their opponents as McConnell got 60 percent and Grimes 76 percent of the vote from their parties.
But each side was busy spinning the results Wednesday. Democrats pointed out that “after spending $12 million” 40 percent of Republicans voted against McConnell. Holmes, on the other hand, said no Republican incumbent in history who had a primary challenger who spent $1 million or more had ever garnered 60 percent of the vote.
He and Scott Jennings, who advises Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said McConnell got more votes Tuesday than did Rand Paul in his 2010 primary win over Trey Grayson. They were just as quick to point to coal producing counties in both eastern and western Kentucky where Grimes’ margins were less than her statewide margin.
Grimes polled less than 70 percent in several coal-producing counties, including some Democratic strongholds like Pike and Floyd in the east and in Union County in the west.
Holmes pointed out that in the same coal-producing counties McConnell won a higher percentage of the vote against Bevin than Grimes won against her three opponents.
Grimes knows that’s part of McConnell’s strategy – to tie her to Obama and Reid (who once said “Coal makes us sick”). That’s why she said in her victory speech Tuesday night she’d answer to the people of Kentucky and not the president, “no matter who he – or she – is.”
The insertion of “she” was a subtle reminder that she is friends with former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton who happens to be the present favorite for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win Kentucky in a presidential election and the Clintons are far more popular in Kentucky than Obama.
She also addresses the question in her new ad, which mostly focuses on the partisanship in Washington, telling viewers the problem won’t change if they keep sending the same people back to Washington.
Then she says: “No matter who the president is, I won’t answer to them. I’ll only answer to you.”
Meanwhile, McConnell is trying to woo those Republicans who supported Bevin.
David Dickerson of Glasgow, a Bevin supporter, said he is disappointed Bevin lost, blaming the money McConnell spent on ads attacking Bevin.
“I’m sure many Republican Bevin voters will join together to vote for Mitch McConnell in November,” Dickerson said. But he added: “I am equally certain that many Bevin voters will not soon forget being called traitors who deserved a punch in the nose for opposing Mitch McConnell.”
Dickerson referred to comments by McConnell earlier this year when he vowed to defeat insurgent tea party candidates supported by outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.