Mitch McConnell faces biggest test yet in race against Alison Lundergan Grimes


U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes gave her victory speech at her primary election night celebration at the Carrick House in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (AP Photo/The Lexington Herald-Leader, Pablo Alcala)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to an easy victory in Kentucky’s GOP primary, but in Alison  Lundergan Grimes he faces his biggest test yet. Grimes, who hails from a prominent political family and has ties to the Clintons, delivered a barn burner of speech Tuesday night, revealing herself as a much more sure-footed candidate with a kind of Southern swagger reminiscent of late Texas Governor Ann Richards.  Grimes, who won the Democratic primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote, also revealed some of the themes and strategies of her general election campaign.

Whereas McConnell in his victory speech, barely mentioned Grimes by name, casting her as an outsider and Obama-Harry Reid pawn, Grimes constantly mentioned McConnell, pointedly referring to him as the “senior senator” to cast him as old news.  And even more notably, Grimes, 35, who is one of five daughters, wrapped herself in what might be called blue-collar feminism, name-checking her grandmother as “one of the fiercest Kentucky women I know.”

And in the middle of the speech, there was this notable riff:

Now, Mitch McConnell he wants to tell you who I am and he claims that Kentucky will be lost if we trade in his seat for a Kentucky woman who he believes will sit on the back bench.

Well I’m here to tell you tonight my fellow Kentuckians, I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp, and I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman who is an independent thinker who when I am Kentucky’s next United States senator the decisions I make will be what’s best for the people of the commonwealth of Kentucky, not partisan interests.

And then this line that brought shouts of “Hillary, Hillary” from the crowd:

As Kentucky’s next United States senator I’ll answer to the people of this state. I won’t answer to the president, no matter who he or she might be.

As a proud Kentucky woman I will speak for myself and no Kentucky woman, Mitch McConnell, will sit on the back bench.

The full speech is here:

It is this kind of “I am woman, hear me roar,” political rhetoric that will continue to show up in not only this race, but other races throughout the country.  Wendy Davis has tried it with limited success in Texas.  Monica Wehby, up against Sen. Jeff Merkley, will likely try to shift the dynamics of the “war on women” rhetoric in her race as she pushes back on stories about her personal life.

But back to Kentucky.

The latest poll by NBC/Marist shows a dead heat (McConnell gets 46 percent to Grimes’ 45 percent with 8 percent of registered voters still undecided). Where there is daylight is among women voters, who back Grimes 49 percent to 42 percent for McConnell.  Which is why in his victory speech McConnell on Tuesday stressed his wife, (often seen on the stump by his side), offered anecdotes about the Affordable Care Act that featured women, and talked about all the strong Kentucky women he knows. Both candidates will have huge campaign war-chests to flood the Bluegrass State with ads.  And because of the make-up of the state and his experience, the edge goes to McConnell.

But McConnell, known for his slash and burn approach to campaigning, has yet to face such a formidable, well-financed, candidate, and one who will continue to cast herself as a “strong Kentucky woman,” unafraid to take the fight directly to McConnell and ignore Obama along the way. And, in what is a complicated double standard, because Grimes is a woman,  McConnell might have to temper his usual approach to campaigning or risk appearing to be demeaning or condescending to Grimes, something that would just stir up the Democratic base and groups like Emily’s List.

Grimes will kick off the general election campaign Wednesday in Beattyville, where McConnell faced a newspaper headline last month that suggested he said it was not his job to bring jobs to Kentucky — his campaign said he was taken out of context. Expect ads from both sides as the race to define the candidates begins in earnest.

Up on the air Wednesday, this direct to camera 60-second ad from Grimes:

 

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