WASHINGTON – Sen. Mitch McConnell appears on the verge of achieving his lifelong goal to serve as majority leader in the upper chamber after easily dispatching Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky Tuesday night, winning an unprecedented sixth six-year term in the process.
The race was expected to be close according to the late polls but, as was experienced throughout Election Day, the surveys seemed to undercount Republican strength to a substantial degree. With all of the commonwealth’s precincts reporting, McConnell ended up with 806,689 votes, good for 56 percent of the total while Grimes garnered 584,625, or 41 percent.
Interestingly, despite the early predictions of an excruciatingly tight race, McConnell outperformed his 2006 victory when he beat Northern Kentucky businessman Bruce Lunsford by six points.
“I work hard to bring your concerns to Washington and I will not let up,” McConnell told a raucous crowd of supporters at his victory celebration.
“Whether you’re a coal miner in Eastern Kentucky who can’t find work or a mom in Paducah who can’t understand why the government just took away her family’s health insurance, I’ve heard your concerns,” he said. “I’ve made them my own. You will be heard in Washington.”
At a press conference held in Louisville on Wednesday, McConnell vowed that under the new GOP majority – Republicans will control at least 53 of the 100 seats in the upper chamber – he will find areas of common ground with his old nemesis, President Obama, should he be chosen leader as expected.
“There will be no government shutdowns and no defaults on the national debt,” he declared.
But McConnell also vowed the chamber will be “voting on things the administration is not fond of,” items like Keystone XL pipeline and, of course, provisions within the Affordable Care Act. But he also acknowledged that “the veto pen is a pretty powerful tool.”
McConnell bested Grimes despite low ratings – a recent Public Policy Polling survey showed only 37 percent of those questioned approve of his performance in the Senate – and an overtly negative campaign from Grimes, fueled by contributions from out-of-state interests repelled by McConnell’s rightward swing.
But in the end, the Commonwealth’s distaste for President Obama – a late Bluegrass Poll placed the president’s approval at 27 percent — a historic move toward the political philosophy of the Republican Party in what was once a Yellow Dog Democrat state, and Grimes’ missteps resulted in an easier than expected victory.
It was called as soon as the polls closed.
“While tonight didn’t bring us the results we had hoped for, this journey, the fight for you, it was worth it,” Grimes told supporters in Lexington. “I will continue to fight for the Commonwealth of Kentucky each and every day. My hope is the message has been sent to Congress that we need to work to increase the minimum wage, to close the gender pay gap and to bring good paying jobs back to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Grimes did not acknowledge McConnell in her remarks.
McConnell appeared extremely vulnerable at the outset of the campaign, drawing condemnation from conservatives aligned with the Tea Party movement who felt the GOP leader wasn’t doing enough to stand in the way of the president’s initiatives. He even attracted primary opposition from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who spent more than $5 million trying to unseat the incumbent.
In the end McConnell prevailed in the primary by a comfortable margin but he appeared to be damaged goods. Grimes, the daughter of a Democratic state legislator and Kentucky Democratic Party chairman from Lexington, started the campaign with a thin lead.
But Grimes never proved able to take advantage of the disapproval voters held for McConnell. She failed to offer a vision of her own and stumbled poorly at the end, refusing to acknowledge she voted for Obama in 2012, even though she attended the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C., as an Obama delegate.
McConnell, long an opponent of campaign finance reform, drew vital assistance from independent groups who spent lavishly on his behalf and funded television commercials that maintained a constant attack on Grimes and the Democrats.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, operated by onetime McConnell aide Scott Jennings, concentrated on Obama’s statewide unpopularity and successfully associated Grimes with the administration, asserting that a vote for the Democrat was essentially a vote for the president and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada.
McConnell also constantly harped on what he characterized as Obama’s “War on Coal,” citing the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to implement regulations reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. Grimes also expressed opposition to the administration’s clean-air actions but McConnell managed to tie the effort closely to all Democrats.
Ultimately, McConnell’s unmatched experience and campaign savvy proved too much for Grimes, who stayed close for much of the campaign but wilted in the final phase.