Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is clearly not leaving his reelection to luck. While he's had some good fortune so far, he's mostly surviving on a lot of preemptive attacks and a surprising dose of incompetence from his opponents. With today's announcement that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes will run against him, the most unexpectedly engrossing Senate race in the country will only get more interesting. And then McConnell will probably win.
We've discussed Grimes before. She's been rumored as a possibility for months, and, following Ashley Judd's probably-wise decision not to run in the race, Grimes emerged as perhaps the most likely candidate. Clearly, McConnell and Kentucky Republicans have had their eye on her for a while. She's been featured / disparaged in at least three ads over the past few months. This was during what McConnell famously called the Whac-A-Mole phase of the campaign. Any time a potential opponent to his candidacy peeked his or her head up — bam, nail them with an ad in opposition.
Grimes has so far not retreated back into the cabinet (or whatever the proper Whac-A-Mole analogy is). Instead, she insists that she spent the time since Judd dropped out preparing for the fight. "Make no mistake, members of the media, this due diligence was not reluctance, it was not hesitancy, but rather a deliberate gathering of all the necessary facts to make a decision that’s not to be taken lightly," Politico reports Grimes as saying during her announcement today.
It's natural that Republicans would be a bit intimidated by Grimes' candidacy. In 2011, she won election to her current position by a large margin — even topping the big spread posted by the state's incumbent governor — though her opponent was far weaker. As news reports on Grimes' announcement are quick to point out, she also comes from lesser Kentucky Democratic royalty. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, served two stints as state party chairman.
Which brings us to Jerry Lundergan. Lundergan's first stint as party chairman ended somewhat ignominiously, after admitting to ethics violations related to a no-bid contract with which his catering company was awarded. This was 1988, and "the sins of the father, etc.," but the grainy photo/incriminating headline in news coverage about it will almost certainly be hard for McConnell to resist.
Of course, Lundergan redeemed himself, enough for that second stint. Unlike the first time, it lasted longer than three months.
Wasting no time after Grimes' announcement, the polling experts at The New York Times' 538 blog have weighed in with an assessment. McConnell is likely to win — but it is not a sure thing.
In many ways, Ms. Grimes faces a challenge similar to that faced earlier this year by Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat who challenged Representative Mark Sanford in a special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District: to defeat a flawed Republican opponent on solidly Republican terrain.
McConnell's flaws, as we pointed out in May center on the fact that the senator is very unpopular. His job approval rating has dropped 11 points since his 2008 race. But, in another way, that plays to his advantage. A lot more people are familiar with the work and history of Mitch McConnell than are familiar with Grimes. That's the other reason he was playing Whac-A-Mole: to tell voters negative things about every head that popped up.
And, as 538 notes, if Grimes' playbook is Colbert Busch — that's not exactly a recipe for success. Ask Rep. Mark Sanford.