Politics Get Pricey — and Nasty — in Kentucky

The U.S. Senate race in Kentucky has long been billed not only as one of the nation’s most competitive in this year’s midterms, but as potentially the most expensive ever.

Most political analysts say spending in the race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-Ky.) could reach $100 million by Election Day. That would beat the current record for a Senate race, the $82 million spent in Massachusetts in 2012, when Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated the Republican incumbent, then-Sen. Scott Brown.

With a truckload of money — $36 million — already raised by the two campaigns, and most polls showing a statistical dead heat, it’s perhaps not surprising that the battle between McConnell and Grimes has also turned into one of the nastiest campaigns in the U.S. this year.

Grimes is taking a familiar tack for a challenger, saying McConnell, a 30-year veteran of the Senate, has been in Washington too long, is out of touch with regular Kentuckians, and, as part of the leadership on Capitol Hill, has become part of the partisan gridlock that plagues the capital.

McConnell, meanwhile, says Grimes is nothing more than a liberal rubber stamp for President Barack Obama’s agenda, most of which is highly unpopular in Kentucky.

Coal Country

The two camps have traded jabs, barbs and counter-punches for weeks now on everything from Medicare, jobs, the Affordable Care Act — even that most hallowed of political touchstones, Kentucky basketball. And of course no political race in Kentucky would be complete without a fight over coal, with each campaign trying to convince voters that their candidate is the one committed to the state’s struggling coal industry.

In some ways, the race is following a national template of sorts in this year’s midterm elections: Republicans portraying Democrats as lackeys for an unpopular president — and Democrats running as far and as fast as they can from the same man. But even when the race mirrors that national theme, the issue of coal makes its way to the fore.

“[Grimes] has proven that she will say one thing to Kentuckians but does the opposite when she’s with her inner circle of supporters who have a long record of backing anti-coal, anti-Kentucky policies,” said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore , referring not only to Obama but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Warren. Warren, a rising star in her party, has campaigned with Democratic Senate candidates, including Grimes, in several battleground states.

Since entering the race, though, Grimes, 35, has been consistent in her opposition to Obama’s proposed regulations on coal-fired power plants. The proposal, energy trade groups say, would be devastating to Kentucky’s coal industry and would increase home heating prices on the poor.

“I strongly oppose President Obama’s attack on Kentucky’s energy industry,” Grimes has said. “This administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky’s coal industry, crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”

Still, the McConnell campaign says Grimes was silent on the issue before she got into the race. And it never fails to mention that she was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic convention that nominated the president for a second term.

Both candidates are trying to “exploit the coal issue for its symbolism,” says D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Political Science.

“McConnell has attempted to use coal as the centerpiece of an argument that big government interferes in negative ways in American life,” Voss says. “Grimes has attempted to use coal as a simple way to convince voters that she will not be a consistent ally of President Obama [and] Harry Reid.”

Eastern Kentucky’s coal country has long been a bedrock of Democratic support, and that remains the case for local offices. But in statewide elections, the areas along the West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee borders have voted increasingly for Republicans. That, analysts say, is a problem for Grimes, who needs to run more like those local candidates by presenting herself as a native Kentuckian first, one who stands with the coal miners and other workers who have struggled to keep their jobs.

“Grimes needs to distance herself as much as possible from unpopular national Democrats,” Voss says.

In many ways, McConnell, 72, has the opposite problem. It’s not the national GOP Kentucky voters have a problem with — it’s more McConnell himself.

“McConnell is seemingly vulnerable because he’s in the congressional leadership and easily connected to the great amount of dysfunction in Washington,” says Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election forecasting site based at U.Va.

“Correspondingly, his approval rating has been as far down as the low 30s in the last year or so and his favorable rating is also very low. So McConnell is not a terribly popular individual, and really, never has been.”

Medi‘scare’?

While coal will remain an issue throughout the campaign, the race has recently centered less on regional themes, and more on national issues such as Medicare.

Grimes has attacked McConnell for his support of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget proposal, saying the plan would have raised costs on seniors by $6,000. In a controversial television ad that began airing earlier this month, Grimes sits with Don Disney, a retired coal miner, who looks into the camera and asks McConnell “how you could have voted to raise my Medicare costs by $6,000? How are my wife and I supposed to afford that?”

The ad, which got a “false” rating from PolitiFact, is misleading at best, analysts say. For one thing, anyone 55 and older would not have been affected by the plan’s Medicare model. Disney is 75, so under no circumstances would his Medicare costs increase under the Ryan proposal.

For another, the Congressional Budget Office, which came up with the $6,000 estimate, later retracted that figure, saying it was based on “incorrect assumptions.”

McConnell says he did not even vote for the plan, but that may be splitting hairs a bit thin, political analysts say. He voted on a motion to proceed to consider the Ryan plan, a motion that failed along a party-line vote. And he was quoted numerous times in 2011 saying he supported the plan.

Grimes’ campaign notes that McConnell’s own Medicare ad — which claims that Obamacare would “cut $700 billion from seniors’ Medicare” — has itself been discredited. Indeed, the figure refers to a cut in the growth of future spending over the next several years. Ironically, the Ryan plan McConnell supported included that same $700 billion cut.

Missteps

McConnell has a reputation for running finely tuned campaigns that rarely veer off course, but this year has been uncharacteristic, with the candidate and his team suffering through several gaffes and missteps.

In August of last year, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton, was caught on tape saying he was “holding my nose” managing McConnell’s campaign while gearing up to help Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) if he runs for president in 2016. Benton, best known for working with Tea Party and Libertarian-backed candidates, ran Paul’s successful 2010 Senate campaign and worked for Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul, during his presidential campaign two years later.

McConnell came under fire a month later for failing to denounce a GOP official’s description of Grimes as “an empty dress.”

Then in March of this year, McConnell’s campaign ran a television ad that mistakenly showed the Duke men’s basketball team instead of the University of Kentucky team. While it was a simple editing error that was quickly corrected, McConnell’s primary opponent, Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin, tried to take advantage of the basketball flub and other missteps. Bevin’s campaign, though, hit a few potholes of its own, and, as Skelley says, the GOP challenger “never really got going as a candidate.” McConnell won the primary with 60 percent of the vote.

But Grimes, who won her own primary over nominal opposition, has continued to hammer away at statements McConnell has made in recent weeks, including a comment that equal pay for women amounted to “preferential treatment.” McConnell also came under scrutiny in April for an answer to a newspaper reporter’s question in rural Lee County. The reporter asked how the senator would help bring jobs to the area, to which McConnell is quoted as replying, “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.”

McConnell’s campaign said the comment was taken out of context and argued that the senator has helped bring thousands of jobs to Kentucky during his 30 years in the Senate.

Last week, Grimes sought to capitalize on the “not my job” quote with a television ad in the same style as the Medicare spot. The Democrat notes that under McConnell’s tenure, the state also has lost thousands of coal-mining and other jobs through the years.

Grimes’ camp also has had its share of criticism, from claims that the candidate doesn’t fare well in answering reporters’ questions on the fly, to charges that he campaign keeps her public appearances too tightly scripted. Whether those kinds of image issues hurt her in the long run is hard to say, analysts contend.

Down To The Wire

As for McConnell’s miscues, most don’t believe they’ll have a lasting effect. And, in fact, many are already predicting a sixth term for the Republican, already the longest serving senator in Kentucky history.

“We view McConnell as likely to win reelection for a few reasons,” Skelley, the U.Va. analyst said. “First, it’s the second midterm for a Democratic presidential administration, so the political environment will naturally favor Republicans to some degree. Second, we’re talking about Kentucky, a state that has become ruby red at the federal level in the age of Obama.”

Moreover, he said, it’s difficult to see a Democrat winning “in a state that Mitt Romney won 60.5 percent of the vote in,” in 2012. The senator also has experience on his side, Skelley added.

“[He] has been in some tight races before, but has won five straight elections,” he explained. “And he has amassed a massive war chest to use against Grimes.”

Indeed, he has. The McConnell campaign has raised $25 million in this cycle alone. But Grimes has been no slouch either. She raised $4 million in the second quarter of this year, breaking the old record, held by McConnell, of $2.9 million. The Democrat’s campaign has raised about $11.3 million since announcing her bid last year. The McConnell camp raised less money than Grimes did last quarter — taking in $3.1 million from April through June. But the Republican still leads in overall fundraising and cash on hand, with $9.8 million to Grimes’ $6.2 million. If both candidates continue to keep their fundraising operations in overdrive — and the parties, PACs and other outside groups spend as much as some analysts expect them to — the $100 million mark may very well be within reach.

While Skelley thinks McConnell will win in the end, he won’t be surprised to see this race come down to the wire — and with it, control of the Senate.

“It’s very possible,” he said, “that Grimes will keep the race very tight, all the way up to Election Day.”

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)