Two things were true when actress Ashely Judd was considering a run at unseating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014, and they're still true today: McConnell isn't very popular in Kentucky, and he's not very easy to beat.
Bluegrass State Democrats were divided over Judd's prospective candidacy before she declined to run, but they're pretty uniformly excited about the candidate who stepped forward on Monday: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. The 34-year-old Democrat is the daughter of a former state Democratic Party chairman, and she won election in 2011 with a comfortable 60 percent of the vote.
In the 2011 race, Grimes ran as a business-friendly moderate. And she had a pretty clever ad team:
McConnell, on the other hand, has a $12 million campaign war chest, famously sharp political elbows, and the advantage of running in a state where President Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote in 2012. "I'm no stranger to being an underdog," Grimes said at her campaign rally on Monday.
The McConnell strategy is pretty simple: Paint Grimes as a rubber stamp for Obama and Washington Democrats, and talk a lot about coal and gun rights. An example is McConnell's statement welcoming his new challenger to the race: "Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama's Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes, and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas."
Grimes is a strong politician who can draw on her deep political roots to raise money, but history isn't on her side, says Harry J. Enten at The Guardian. Since 1982, only 6 percents of challengers in the president's party managed to unseat an opposing party's incumbent, and that's usually with a president whose approval rating is in the 60s, not the mid-40s like Obama's. Looking at the last 30 years of data "makes you wonder very hard whether McConnell can lose," regardless of his challenger, Enten says.
Grimes' campaign faces strong headwinds, but "it's certainly not hopeless," says Libby Spencer at The Impolitic. The unpopular McConnell's big gun is Kentucky's dislike of Obama.
That could work for him but Grimes looks like a fighter and she has plenty of ammo. If she plays it right, she could capture the women's vote. Might be enough to swing a win. Stranger things have happened. [Impolitic]
Still, you'd have to say that McConnell "is likely to win re-election," says Micah Cohen at The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog. "However, he is unlikely to sail to victory." There hasn't been a nonpartisan poll, but the four partisan ones since December have McConnell with a "relatively tight" 4.5 percentage-point lead; the latest Public Policy Polling survey, in late May, shows the race tied.
Moreover, a June poll for The Courier-Journal shows that 34 percent of registered voters will vote against McConnell no matter his challenger, versus 17 percent who will vote for him regardless. "Those numbers reflect the fact that Mr. McConnell is fairly unpopular in Kentucky," says Cohen.
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 vulnerable Republican opponent... on solidly Republican terrain. Ms. Colbert Busch lost that race, and Ms. Grimes, too, will have a hard time overcoming Kentucky's Republican gravity. [New York Times]
The only safe bet here, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post, is that "this will be the nastiest race in the country." National Democrats absolutely "hate McConnell," and knocking out the leader of the other party "is worth 2-3 seats in terms of how it's perceived within the party." That means Grimes will have plenty of money. But McConnell "is legendary in political circles for his willingness to unapologetically savage the person he is running against," and despite her political family, Grimes is a political blank slate: Nobody knows who she is.
McConnell understands that his time in Washington deeply divides the Kentucky public — and, because of that, his path to victory lies not in convincing Bluegrass State residents of his virtues but rather in making clear that his opponent is unacceptable.... Grimes' candidacy immediately takes this race into the national spotlight. It will likely be many things over the next 18 months — expensive, tautly contested — but there's one thing we are certain it will be: Nasty. [Washington Post]