by Atlas Staff
Alison Lundergan Grimes has announced her decision to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Grimes, the state’s 34 year old Secretary of State, is a rising star in the Democratic Party and has reportedly been heavily recruited by prominent Democrats. Grimes is a formidable candidate, and McConnell is more vulnerable than many realize. Grimes’ results from 2011, along with her close ties to Kentucky labor, show she brings unique strengths to the table that could help her in 2014.
An April 2012 PPP poll showed McConnell with just a 45%-41% lead in a hypothetical matchup with Grimes. Additionally, 54% of Kentucky voters disapproved of McConnell’s job performance, while just 36% approved of the job he was doing in the Senate. Grimes had a 28% approval rating but just a 22% disapproval rating, the best difference of any of the candidates PPP matched against McConnell.
The 2008 Senate race between McConnell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford ultimately proved closer than many expected, representing McConnell’s worst showing since 1990. McConnell’s Minority Leader status and closeness to the unpopular Washington GOP establishment provided an opening for Lunsford, whose business credentials improved his chances as the economy sagged in late 2008. While McConnell ultimately won the race with 53% of the vote to Lunsford’s 47%, Lunsford outperformed Obama in the state.
McConnell outspent Lunsford 2-to-1, spending $21.3 million compared to Lunsford’s $10.8 million. Despite the $10 million gap between the two campaigns’ budgets, Lunsford was nearly able to keep pace with McConnell on broadcast media spending. Lunsford spent an estimated $6.4 million for almost 22,000 broadcast spots, while McConnell spent an estimated $10.2 million on just over 29,000 broadcast spots.
There are reasons to believe Grimes could outperform Lunsford by just enough to knock off McConnell. In 2011, Grimes won the Secretary of State’s race with 60.6% of the vote. While an apples-to apples comparison isn’t completely appropriate given that Beshear was facing also an Independent challenger, Grimes was also the top vote getter in the state in 2011. Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan, was the former state party chairman and remains a major player in union politics in Kentucky.
Grimes also has a clear geographic base that could be critical for a challenge to McConnell. In 2011 she won 62.5% of the vote in the Lexington Media Market, beating Beshear’s two-way performance of 60.6% and earning 28,007 more votes in the market. This is especially important because the market is seen as a key swing region in Kentucky, and one that Bruce Lunsford lost in 2008.
If Grimes dropped to 55% of the vote in the Lexington Media Market, 52% of the vote in the Louisville Media Market and improves on Lunsford’s performance by 1 percentage point in each of the state’s other media markets, she would get to more than 50% of the vote.
There may also be a chance to make up ground among women in the state. In 2008 Lunsford lost women, winning just 49% of female voters, which was only six points better than his performance among male voters. According to the April PPP poll, Grimes had a 44% to 41% lead on McConnell among women.
Getting elected as a federal Democrat is difficult in Kentucky, and McConnell is already on the air with TV ads and is promising to use “every penny” of what is sure to be a formidable war chest. But there is a path for victory for Grimes in 2014, and if she’s able to follow it she could pull off a stunning upset on election night.