In Kentucky, All Eyes on Grimes to Face McConnell

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 1, 2013 · 9:24 AM EDT

Actress Ashley Judd is out, but that doesn’t mean Democrats are giving up on the Kentucky Senate race.

Many Democrats quickly looked to Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014.

On the surface, the 34 year-old attorney is a statewide elected official without a legislative voting record who could begin as a relatively blank slate against the five-term incumbent. And there is no question she presents a fresher face — Grimes was 5 years old when McConnell defeated Sen. Walter Huddleston, D-Ky., in 1984.

If elected, Grimes would be the youngest U.S. senator by about five years. A deeper dive into her political history reveals Grimes might start from a weaker position than it may seem.

“Nobody cares who the secretary of state of Kentucky is,” said one Democratic insider in the Bluegrass State. That doesn’t mean Grimes can’t become a credible challenger, but her statewide victory didn’t necessarily prepare her to challenge the Senate’s top Republican.

“It’s not a high-powered, high-money, high-drama race,” the campaign veteran said about the race for secretary of state in Kentucky.

Most of the drama happened early in 2011, when Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker, another Democrat, instead of Grimes, to fill the remaining 11 months of Republican Trey Grayson’s term as secretary of state. At the time, Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Joseph Gerth described the pick as the continuation of a feud between the governor and Jerry Lundergan, a former state Democratic Party chairman and Grimes’ father, which has been going on for decades.

However, Grimes kept running for a full term to the secretary of state office. She defeated Walker in the May primary less than four months after the mayor took office.

Grimes outspent Walker $465,00 to $186,000 and won 55 percent to 45 percent. In the general election, Grimes outspent Navy veteran Bill Johnson $605,000 to $92,000 and was elected secretary of state with 61 percent of the vote. Her ad featuring her elderly grandmothers still has bipartisan buzz among insiders in the state.

Grimes won with the highest percentage of any Democrat that year. But it was Beshear’s 56 percent re-election at the top of the ticket that guided Democrats to victories in all but one of the seven statewide offices in the 2011 elections. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is the only Republican.

But state races are not a problem for Kentucky Democrats. They haven’t won a Senate race in more than 20 years — the last time was when Wendell Ford was re-elected in 1992 — even though GOP Sen. Jim Bunning had a knack for close races.

President Bill Clinton carried the state twice, but with less than 50 percent: 1992 (45 percent) and 1996 (46 percent). The last Democratic presidential nominee to get a majority was former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976 (53 percent). He received 49 percent four years later. Last year, President Barack Obama lost 42 percent of the vote to “uncommitted” in the primary and received 38 percent in the general election.

“It’s like going from high school to the All-Star game in the major leagues and facing a pitcher who will throw a ball at your head,” according to one Democratic source comparing a secretary of state race to a U.S. Senate race against McConnell.

Grimes is young, but politics runs in the family.

Her father served in the Kentucky general assembly and was chairman of the state party, and he and his wife have been longtime Clinton donors, supporters and friends. The Lundergans catered Chelsea Clinton’s wedding through their family business.

In 1999, Grimes contributed $1,000 to Al Gore’s presidential campaign, when she was a 20-year-old student at Rhodes College in Memphis. In fact, she was one of nine family members who contributed exactly $1,000 each to the vice president on the same day (Sept. 30) that year, including her two older sisters, two younger sisters, mother, father and two uncles. Gore lost the state by 16 points in 2000.

Grimes also contributed $1,000 to Democrat Tony Miller’s unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Anne Northup, a Republican, in 2004 and $2,300 to Jack Conway’s Senate campaign in 2010.

Even though Grimes wouldn’t be able to attract the same national attention and fundraising ability that Judd would have enjoyed for her race, McConnell’s polling numbers demonstrate a level of weakness. In mid-December, the leader’s campaign released a survey that showed him with a narrow advantage, 47 percent to 43 percent, over Judd.

But if Grimes runs, she will likely need significant support from outside Democratic groups as well as a few breaks in order to buck the Democratic losing streak in federal races in the state.