All Republican eyes are on Mississippi right now, where the race between Senator Thad Cochran and his tea-party challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel has been the most dramatic, personal, and nasty of the midterm-election cycle. The general-election contest between Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes may soon match it.
A week and a half out from the primary, the campaigns are embroiled in a debate over debates, with McConnell-campaign manager Jesse Benton accusing Grimes adviser Jonathan Hurst of hanging up on him the evening of May 27 when he called to hash out the terms of the candidates’ debates. The day after McConnell’s primary victory, he issued a letter to Grimes inviting her to participate in three debates, without an audience or notes and moderated only by a timekeeper.
“I called Jonathan Hurst’s cell phone, he answered, and when I identified myself, he hung up,” says Benton. Hurst denies doing so and the two have since traded voicemails, but Benton says it’s “pretty clear they don’t want to talk about it.”
In a letter to McConnell, Grimes has issued her own debate terms: She wants the debates to take place before an audience, in different regions of the commonwealth, and over a more extended timeline. Under McConnell’s proposal, they would have concluded before Labor Day.
The McConnell campaign is hitting back. “Senator McConnell’s offer was an attempt to have serious exchanges that are free from distraction for Kentucky voters to evaluate their candidates, but we probably should have known Alison Lundergan Grimes would turn it into a political game,” McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a statement. “We’re happy to have further discussions with the Grimes campaign but it’s clear that this is devolving into a juvenile exchange of press releases rather than the serious presentation of the candidates’ views that Kentuckians deserve.”
Both sides are gearing up for a tough battle. Grimes is relatively untested but has a real campaign operation that the Democratic establishment has invested in heavily. McConnell has been under 50 percent in every public poll and his disapproval rating, in a state where everybody has a firm opinion of him, is high. One top Republican consultant compared McConnell’s race to this year to Harry Reid’s 2010 reelection effort. That year, Reid fought mightily to fend off his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle, eventually defeating her by five points. Going into the election, most polls showed Angle ahead.
Now, the McConnell and Grimes campaigns are also exchanging barbs over . . . the use of stock photographs in advertisements. In an ad blasting President Obama’s new EPA rules on carbon emissions, Grimes used a stock photo snapped by a Ukrainian photographer, featuring a European model posing as a coal miner. The Grimes campaign said the design firm made a mistake and that the ad was corrected before it was placed in newspapers; it was replaced with another stock photo featuring an American model. McConnell has repeatedly questioned Grimes’s pro-coal stance and his campaign said Thursday that that her concern for Kentucky’s coal workers is “insulting and blatantly political.”
The Grimes campaign pointed to several photos on McConnell’s Facebook page that have been accompanied by stock imagery. “Evidently Mitch McConnell’s team would rather drum up a fake scandal about an ad that did not run than admit their mistake and talk about the issues important to Kentuckians,” Grimes spokesman Preston Maddock told Politico’s James Hohmann.
The McConnell camp, meanwhile, charged that the attack reeked of desperation. Spokeswoman Allison Moore said, “If Alison Lundergan Grimes thinks that sorting through Facebook will cover up her inability to tell the difference between a Kentucky coal miner and a European male model then she’s in for a long election.” She called the European model “a perfect symbol of her inauthentic support for Kentucky coal.”