Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might be the headliner of the "Super Tuesday" primaries, but the Kentucky Republican's general election has already started.
Tuesday features intriguing Republican and Democratic primaries at the House and Senate levels across six states, including a still-unpredictable Georgia GOP Senate race and an open-seat Democratic House contest in Philadelphia. In Kentucky, McConnell was once considered vulnerable to a conservative challenger, but he’s likely to easily defeat Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, a tea-party-backed, partially self-financing contender.
For McConnell, Tuesday night will serve as a test-run for the general against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and the formal kickoff to the more challenging leg of his already lengthy re-election campaign.
“Our goal was to come out of the primary stronger than we went in, and by any objective measure the McConnell campaign has exceeded that goal,” McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. McConnell has essentially been running two races simultaneously — systematically discrediting Bevin and reaching out to Republican primary voters, while also setting himself up to face a well-funded Democrat. It's gone the other way, too.
Last fall, McConnell faced a one-two combination as an ad buy from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which backed Bevin, followed one from the Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC the previous month. But that onslaught was matched with help from friends, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as the primary concluded with nearly equal spending both in support of and opposition to the minority leader by outside groups, according to independent-expenditure figures compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute.
The dearth of TV advertising against McConnell over the past month is the most striking evidence of the primary’s lack of competitiveness. Beyond that, McConnell’s most recent ads were geared more toward a general-election audience, while a super PAC supporting McConnell has targeted Grimes all along, while ignoring Bevin.
Scott Jennings, a former McConnell strategist and head of the super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, argued that while McConnell has been running against a Republican and Democrat all along, the senator's opposition to the president’s health care overhaul and standing up for the state’s coal interests, among other priorities, are attractive attributes to both electorates.
“Two different races, yes,” Jennings said. “But I think the way they’ve gone about winning this primary and positioning McConnell as a strong conservative leader who stands up for Kentucky is a good message for both campaigns.”
Most recent polls have found McConnell and Grimes running even in the general. For all the millions expected to be spent over the next five months, veteran Democratic consultant Jimmy Cauley said he can see the race still being tied heading into the final weeks. He also offered an analysis of the concluding GOP contest that could double as advice for Grimes.
“They just cleaned his clock,” Cauley said of the McConnell campaign and Bevin. “Then all of a sudden it was a drip, drip, drip of mistakes — and again, you don’t make mistakes against a guy like Mitch McConnell.”
Grimes launched her first TV ad on May 8 — about two weeks before the primary — and just finished a 10-day, 50-county tour. She's withstood the hits so far, but more will likely begin on Wednesday. Her campaign is set to take on McConnell's record in the Senate and tie him to the dysfunction on Capitol Hill, while pitching Grimes as an independent-minded advocate for Kentucky.
"With Washington paralyzed by partisan gridlock, Alison will be an independent, commonsense problem-solver who fights for Kentucky values," Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Two recent polls conducted for NBC News and a consortium of Kentucky media outlets both found McConnell with sizeable, double-digit leads over Bevin. Despite spending more than $3.3 million, Bevin’s own missteps and inability to match McConnell and his allies on the airwaves significantly hindered his bid.
The McConnell campaign released a memo Monday morning stating the senator “is poised to win” the primary and positioned well for the general, with $10 million in cash on hand as of April 30. While a significant percentage of Republicans will vote against the five-term incumbent Tuesday, the McConnell campaign argues those voters will come home by November — as they did for Rand Paul in 2010 after the state’s last competitive GOP Senate primary.
"Alison Grimes is a very talented woman, very well respected," Marc Wilson, a Kentucky lobbyist and longtime GOP operative, told CQ Roll Call. "However, Kentucky is a Republican-voting state. I think that with the president’s popularity level being so low in Kentucky, it’s not going to bode well for any Democratic candidate."