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.
Republicans named several contenders ready to run for an open Senate seat. State Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer is a possible candidate, but he is expected to run for governor in 2015. A local operative called him “the next big thing.” Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who unsuccessfully ran for the GOP 2010 Senate nomination, is a possible but unlikely 2016 Senate candidate.
Then there’s the handful of House Republicans in the delegation. Piper noted Reps. Brett Guthrie and Edward Whitfield as candidates who could run statewide if there’s an opportunity. Other sources say that the entire GOP delegation could run for Senate in an open race, along with former Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan.
For the Democrats, party operatives continue to mention state Attorney General Jack Conway as a viable statewide candidate. He lost to Rand Paul by 12 points in 2010 — a cycle that was kind to Republicans nationwide. Conway’s name also comes up as a future gubernatorial and congressional candidate.
Local Democrats also named state Auditor Adam Edelen as a future statewide candidate.
Then there are opportunities in the House that could come sooner if anyone in the delegation retires. But as long as Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers holds his gavel, local Republicans say he will stay in Congress. Those who might one day succeed him include state Sen. Chris Girdler, former University of Kentucky football player Grayson Smith, Rogers district director Karen Kelly and state Senate Majority Whip Brandon Smith.
Democratic contenders for that seat include state Rep. Greg Stumbo, state Sen. Ray Jones and 2010 Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo.
Democrats have expressed some interest in challenging Rep. Andy Barr in the Lexington-based 6th District. Former Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler held the seat for four terms until Barr defeated him last year.
Democrats said the front-runner to challenge Barr is Elisabeth Jensen, the leader of a nonprofit education advocacy group, The Race for Education. They also said Joe Palumbo, the president of a lumber company, is mulling a run.
Democrats believe having Grimes at the top of the ticket can only help their cause — at least this cycle.
Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.