Strategy Could Give Grimes Shot At U-S Senate

May 12, 2013

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes could be a strong challenger in next year's U.S. Senate race if she runs as a Washington outsider against both Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and President Barack Obama.

University of Kentucky political scientist Ernie Yanarella said if Grimes decides to get into the race she will have to set herself apart from Obama, particularly on the coal industry that has proven so influential in Kentucky politics.

Based on Grimes' successful 2011 run for secretary of state, she appears to have support in the coal industry from both rank-and-file miners and wealthy mine operators. She received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America and collected maximum contributions from some of the most influential leaders in Kentucky's mining industry, including Alliance Coal chief executive officer Joe Craft and more than a dozen of his subordinates.

Even Heath Lovell, a mine executive who played a pivotal role in defeating former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler last year by appearing in TV ads bashing the incumbent, made a maximum $1,000 contribution to Grimes in 2011.

"I think Alison is a strong candidate," said UMWA regional vice president Steve Earle. "I think she's got the passion and the fire to take on McConnell. They'll probably try to tie her to Obama, but I don't think they'll be successful in doing that. She's closer to Bill Clinton than Obama."

Grimes, 34, has said only that she's considering a Senate bid. She has given no timeframe for making a decision.

In heavily Republican North Dakota, Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp defeated a GOP opponent last year by criticizing Obama's policies she said were hurting her state's coal industry. In Kentucky, which is predominantly Democratic by registration, Grimes could do the same.

McConnell, a five-term incumbent, has made his opposition to Obama the focal point of his own re-election campaign. He criticizes Obama administration policies that have made it difficult for coal companies to obtain federal permits to open or expand mines.

McConnell has already begun painting potential Democratic challengers as rubberstamps for a president who has proven unpopular among Kentucky voters.

Given Obama's negatives in Kentucky, embracing him would almost certainly doom a Democratic challenger's campaign. McConnell would likely do everything he could to connect any Democratic candidate to Obama in a barrage of TV ads in what could become Kentucky's most expensive political race ever.

University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck said it would be good strategy for Grimes, if she runs, to neutralize McConnell by being critical of Obama, too, and blaming them both for the political gridlock in Washington.

"It's very clear that Mitch McConnell tries to do this to Democrats, and, by throwing this albatross off her neck, she denies him the ability for that strategy to work," Rhodebeck said.

Grimes political adviser Jonathan Hurst said a challenger with a proven record of bipartisanship would be attractive to voters. He said Grimes, the daughter of former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, has shown that she's willing to work closely with Republicans in the Kentucky Legislature.

Grimes teamed up with Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican, earlier this year to pass a new law to help ensure that military personnel deployed overseas get to vote in elections in back home.

Rhodebeck agreed that Grimes' success working with the GOP would likely play well with Kentucky voters.

"One of the things that people are concerned about is whether anyone in Congress can work with people across the aisle, so she could use this as some evidence that she's able to do so," Rhodebeck said.

Partisan head-butting has left both McConnell and Obama politically battered. Polls show McConnell nearly as unpopular as Obama in the state.

State Republican Party spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said Grimes would have a tough time running away from Obama, considering she twice was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that nominated him for president.

"Kentuckians would see right through such a blatantly dishonest strategy," Cooper said.

Grimes' race for secretary state was devoid of the kinds of issues she'll face as a Senate candidate. The public record shows little about Grimes' positions on coal, guns, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and federal health care reforms. McConnell's researchers will be hard pressed to find any public comments at all.

A secret recording of a McConnell strategy session captured his aides' efforts to find juicy tidbits in opposition research. One aide noted that Grimes had endorsed Obama, but didn't do so by name, saying only that she would support "our nominee."

"She was too smart to use his name in a sentence," the aide said.

Grimes, who practiced law in Lexington before being elected secretary of state, isn't the first woman to challenge McConnell. Lois Combs Weinberg, the daughter of a former governor, challenged him two elections ago, but didn't have the money to run a close campaign. McConnell largely ignored her.

"I don't think Alison Grimes can be ignored," Rhodebeck said. "She's pretty assertive. I assume she's going to turn her limited political experience into the asset that she calls `outsiderism,' which seems to carry some appeal to voters."

But defeating McConnell would be a longshot. Rhodebeck put her chances at somewhere between 1 percent and 50 percent.

"If she played this well, even a loss could end up burnishing her credentials for a future race," Rhodebeck said. "People will be looking to see how she conducts herself, who she uses as advisers, her debating strengths, her policy positions, and which policies she chooses to focus on. She may be willing to suffer a loss, which is more likely than not, to help shape up her political future."