McConnell was elected in 1984. He defeated a popular Democrat in an upset victory that year (Roger Ailes was his political consultant) and has built a reputation as a politician of impeccable tactical skill and a vicious campaigner. President George W. Bush nicknamed him “Landslide McConnell,” a nod to the runaway reelection victories he won in 1996 and 2002, both by double digits.
This year is different. The latest polls show him with a narrow lead on Grimes, a political neophyte who had served less than two years as Kentucky’s secretary of state when she announced her Senate candidacy last summer.
He says the competitiveness reflects the perils of being part of the political leadership of either party in the modern era. When former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004, he was the first member of the Senate leadership to lose a bid for reelection in over a half century. “Becoming majority leader,” McConnell tells me, “changed my political life.” In 2002, he spent $6.5 million and was reelected by nearly 30 points, the largest majority by a Republican in Kentucky history; in the first race after he was elected majority leader, he spent $21 million and won by five points.
McConnell says he’s not flustered by the new paradigm, but “sort of philosophical about it.”
The minority leader’s weaknesses extend beyond his position in the GOP leadership: He has consistently polled below 50 percent, a dangerous place for any incumbent, but particularly for him in Kentucky, where most voters have a settled opinion of him. Grimes, by contrast, is a relative unknown. “She comes to the race with no voting record of any kind, which is a real boon,” says Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Though the race is tight, Grimes is not without weaknesses. For one, she is hard-pressed to respond to questions about policy, and the whispers behind the scenes this weekend were that it’s because she doesn’t know very much. She has refused to stake out positions on the two most divisive political issues of the campaign season, illegal immigration and Obamacare. And for all her defense of women’s rights, she fled from reporters in the spring when asked for her thoughts on a former state representative and donor to her campaign who was accused of sexual harassment.
Her father, Jerry Lundergan, a two-time chairman of the Democratic party in Kentucky, may also prove a liability. It is arguable that without him, her candidacy would have been an impossibility. He is omnipresent on the campaign trail, and his deep ties in the Democratic party have already helped bring Bill Clinton and Joe Biden to the state for campaign events. Clinton arrives in Kentucky again this week. According to Cross, Lundergan is “effectively serving as chairman” of the Grimes campaign.
But Lundergan has not always sounded notes of women’s empowerment. At Grimes’s splashy campaign rollout, which took place at a Lundergan-owned venue, he declared, “That’s what daddies do for their little girls.” He also owns with his brothers the Hugh Jass Burgers restaurant on the campus of the University of Kentucky. Some of the menu items make reference to the women in his family: “Charlotte’s Rack” is a rack of ribs named after Lundergan’s wife, Charlotte, and “Abby’s Hugh Jass” is a hamburger named after his daughter, Abigail. Another menu item: “the Tiny Tush,” a smaller burger.
The race will be a test of how strong anti-incumbent sentiment has grown. Neither candidate is coy about the stakes. Asked whether the GOP has any chance of retaking the Senate if he doesn’t win in Kentucky, McConnell is direct: “No,” he says.
— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.