For Democrats to win statewide in Kentucky, they must run up the score in urban areas without turning off voters in the state’s agricultural and coal counties. That’s as hard as it sounds — especially when a candidate can be painted by the competition as unsupportive of coal, one of the state’s crucial economic engines.
Exit Ashley Judd; enter Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Kentucky’s secretary of state will formally kick off her campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell next week. Her current status as a “blank slate” is what makes Democrats in the Bluegrass State optimistic that she can defeat the so-far-unbeatable Republican.
“I think she can get votes out of northern Kentucky and out west,” said Jimmy Cauley, a veteran Democratic operative in the state. “That’s where the race will be won or lost.”
Cauley, a former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear and campaign manger on Barack Obama’s Senate campaign in Illinois, caught some heat earlier this year for pouring cold water on a prospective Judd bid.
The actress had great name recognition in the state, but Cauley and other state and national Democrats were unconvinced she could take down McConnell. He won two of his past four races with 53 percent or less, but he still emerged victorious.
Their apprehension about Judd’s candidacy wasn’t personal. It was geographical.
Outside the state’s urban areas of Louisville, Lexington and the Cincinnati suburbs in Northern Kentucky — where just one-third of the votes were cast in McConnell’s last race — there was concern Judd would get completely wiped out in the state’s coal and agricultural areas.
For Grimes to succeed, she’ll have to avoid electoral destruction west of Louisville, as well as dampen Republicans’ winning margins in the counties of Boone, Campbell and Kenton, which sit just south of the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It’s the most expensive media market in the state and a GOP foothold.
In the past three Senate elections in Kentucky, Republicans Rand Paul, Jim Bunning and McConnell won each of the three counties with at least 62 percent of the vote.
That’s where Democrats in the state believe they have an opportunity to drive up McConnell’s negatives — the national party has labeled him an "obstructionist" and publicly questioned his leadership among Senate Republicans. The party received a boost July 19 as news broke that Louisville businessman Matt Bevin was reportedly planning to launch a primary challenge to McConnell this week.
They also hope to build on a base of support from Grimes' family’s roots. Her parents, including former state party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, are from Maysville, a city in Mason County about 60 miles down the Ohio from Cincinnati.
Of course, Grimes is starting off deep in the financial hole against McConnell, who reported last week having $9.6 million in cash on hand as of June 30.
“We’re the underdog, OK?” said Dale Emmons, a Kentucky Democratic consultant and friend of the Lundergan family. “Don’t let anybody convince you otherwise. It’s going to take a substantial sum of money to be competitive.”
The first key county to watch on election night will be Louisville’s Jefferson County. If Grimes is winning by at least 80,000 votes, the rest of the night could be a nail-biter for Republicans. But they’re not banking on that happening.
Billy Piper, a former longtime chief of staff to McConnell, said Grimes’ lack of a record and relative personal anonymity is exactly why the scant public polling so far has shown the race to be competitive.
“My prediction is that by the time the McConnell machine is done with her,” Piper said, “she’s not only been beaten in ’14, but she’s completely damaged and won’t be able to run [for another office] in ’15.”
The playbook so far has been to tie Grimes to President Barack Obama and the national Democratic Party agenda, including “the war on coal.” A super PAC supportive of McConnell, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, did just that on July 19, unleashing its second TV attack ad against Grimes in the past month.
The reasoning is simple. Obama didn’t just lose the past two presidential elections in Kentucky by an average of 20 points, he lost 118 of the state’s 120 counties to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
“That combined with the issue matrix makes this climate so unfavorable for Democrats,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said.
Of course, Democrats hope Clinton, now the former secretary of State, and President Bill Clinton, who have both found success in Kentucky, can prove beneficial for Grimes in fundraising and on the trail.
“Her family is legitimately very close to the Clintons,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. “I think they’re going to get a lot of attention and support from the president and from Hillary.”