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In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes represents more than Democrats’ best shot to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
No Democrat has represented Kentucky in the Senate since 1999, and Republicans hold a 5-to-1 majority in the state’s House delegation. So for Bluegrass Democrats, Grimes represents their hopes of reversing the GOP’s increasing domination over the state’s federal offices.
“Since McConnell first won in 1984, there’s been a growing Republican advantage for federal office both statewide and district by district,” said Billy Piper, a lobbyist and former McConnell chief of staff. The national Democratic Party “does not reflect their views and it is hard for a person running for federal office in Kentucky to not wear that.”
To be sure, Kentucky’s political leanings are not the same breed of conservatism that dominates the Deep South. Democrats hold a few statewide offices, and the state’s past two Senate races were competitive enough to attract funds from the national parties.
But McConnell holds an advantage over Grimes in a race on track to be the most brutal in recent Kentucky memory. The question for local operatives is if Grimes loses — though Democrats insist she will not — will she maintain a bright future in Kentucky politics?
Republicans often boast that McConnell does not just defeat his rivals — he annihilates them. With the exception of Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear, Democrats who challenged McConnell have rarely successfully run for office again.
“Even if [Grimes] loses to McConnell, she probably won’t meet the same fate as his previous opponents — with the exception of Gov. Beshear — which is to recede into obscurity,” said a Democratic state operative granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Republicans concede that the race could be competitive. But they also insist this is McConnell’s contest to lose, saying Grimes is challenging him at her own political peril.
“She’s putting any future office at the statewide level in jeopardy once the McConnell machine is through with her,” Piper said.
After all, there might be better statewide opportunities ahead for Democrats.
Specifically, the 2016 Senate race in Kentucky has the potential to shake up state politics. Republican Sen. Rand Paul has suggested he’s interested in running for president, which would leave a Senate seat open in just two years. Under state election law, Paul cannot appear twice on the general-election ballot. There is some legal debate within the state about his options.