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Vitriol, Controversy Grow More Heated in Kentucky Senate Race

The Kentucky Farm Bureau was an appropriate venue for the first official faceoff between the two rivals in this year’s Senate race: Both slung buckets of mud, sowed plenty of suspicion and reaped a bumper crop’s worth of contempt from one another. Then again, that’s become pretty typical daily fare in this race — one that’s turned nastier than a cutworm on a crop of Kentucky sweetcorn.

Corny metaphors (sorry) aside, there’s certainly no love lost between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

McConnell, the 72-year-old incumbent and Senate minority leader, is facing one of the toughest challenges of his career in Grimes, 35, Kentucky’s secretary of state. The race is one of a handful of competitive Senate contests this year that will decide control of the chamber. Republicans need to flip six seats to take over the Senate and have healthy leads in at least four of those races.

With about nine weeks left in the campaign, McConnell holds a small lead of between two and four percentage points, according to most polls. But essentially, the Kentucky contest is still a tossup, analysts say. And McConnell and Grimes have ratcheted up the animus in recent days in hopes of gaining an edge.

No Show

During last week’s farm bureau forum, the two continued their tried-and-true attacks, but also brought out some relatively new ammo.

Grimes slammed McConnell for continually missing meetings of the Senate Agriculture Committee, on which he sits. In fact, Grimes noted, McConnell has not attended a single meeting since 2009 — more evidence, she says, of the low regard the senator holds of farmers and their concerns.

“When it comes to the Agriculture Committee, did Sen. McConnell bother to show up?” Grimes said. “No, for nearly three years he has missed every meeting.”

McConnell says he has missed committee meetings for a number of reasons, including tending to his duties as Senate minority leader.

“You don’t have time to do justice to committee work if you’re one of the party leaders,” he told those attending the forum, including dozens of farmers. “You’re involved in other issues much more — honestly — much more consequential issues than being there for a particular hearing on a subject that may or may not be relevant to what’s going on.”

Grimes says McConnell’s answer shows he’s more interested in “personal power and partisan politics” than addressing the specific concerns of the people who elected him.

“McConnell missed meetings for D.C. photo ops and television appearances,” the Grimes campaign said in a statement. That demonstrates, it said, “just how out of touch Mitch McConnell is after 30 years in Washington.”

‘Bus’-ted?

But Grimes herself is now facing accusations of being out of touch with average Kentuckians. In the last 10 days, McConnell has skewered Grimes over reports that she may have received an illegal campaign contribution from a company owned by her father, former Kentucky Democratic Chairman and state legislator Jerry Lundergan.

Politico first reported on Aug. 19 that Grimes’ campaign rented a bus earlier this year from Lundergan’s company, Signature Special Event Services, at a cost of $11,000, or just $456 per day. That’s well below the market rate, according to the report, leading to accusations that Grimes got a “sweetheart deal” through her family connections.

In addition to the bus rental, Grimes’ campaign has paid the company thousands of dollars this year for catering and other services. There’s no evidence at this point that the campaign may have paid below-market rates services other than the bus rental. Still, McConnell’s camp says, the bus flap alone should make voters question Grimes’ sense of fair play.

“[It] should set off warning bells for all Kentuckians concerned about ethics in public office,” the campaign said in a statement.

‘Reasonable Reimbursement’

But officials with the Grimes campaign say they checked with other local and regional transportation companies to make sure it was paying fair-market value for the bus.

Marc Elias, an attorney for the campaign, defended the payments.

“The law requires that the campaign pay ‘the normal and usual fare or rental charge for a comparable [bus],’” Elias said in a statement. “The campaign obtained quotes … from other providers … and arrived at a reasonable reimbursement cost.”

Several firms cited by Politico, however, say they would charge about $2,000 per day for a similar rental, and a bus rented by McConnell’s campaign this summer cost $2,200 per day.

What’s more, one of the companies cited by Grimes says that while the $456-per-day rate is in line with what it charges, other aspects of the deal are unusual. Dan Neuen, vice president of operations for Atlanta-based Star Coach, said the company would have charged the campaign for the entire time it had the bus “wrapped” with Grimes’ likeness, name and logo — not just the 24 days the campaign used it.

“If they’re paying 11 grand to have that bus wrapped for 266 days and use it however many days they want to use it? That’s a ‘sweetheart deal,’” Neuen told the Associated Press last week.

Grimes Charges ‘Bullying’ Tactics

Grimes’ camp didn’t help itself by offering contradictory statements on whether the bus rental included gas or not. It told Politico the $456-per-day cost did include fuel, a claim backed up by its campaign finance reports. But it later put out a statement saying the cost was actually $180 per day, with fuel not included.

For her part, Grimes calls the accusations of special treatment “baseless.”

The controversy rests only on “unfounded, bullying accusations from the McConnell campaign,” the candidate said last week.

Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission attorney, told Politico that the bus rental could be an illegal in-kind contribution, but it’s by no means an open-and-shut case.

“If they can show that her campaign could have gone on the open market and gotten the bus for that price, then it’s market value,” Noble said. “But if all the evidence is that the bus would have cost several times as much, then that’s not going to work.”

And The Hits Keep Coming

The spats over McConnell’s agriculture committee absences and Grimes’ bus rental could have staying power, analysts say. But more than likely, they’re just more fodder in what has become a steady round of rhetorical fire from both camps.

At Tuesday’s Red, White & Blue Picnic in Owensboro — which hosted 10-minute speeches by both candidates — Grimes referenced McConnell’s committee attendance record. In the same line, though, she included the broader themes of her main argument against McConnell: That as leader of the Senate Republican caucus, the 30-year incumbent has played a key role in the legislative gridlock and bitter partisanship that plagues Washington.

“I don’t know whether to call Sen. McConnell Sen. No-Show, Sen. Gridlock or Sen. Shutdown,” she said. The last “name” referred not only to last year’s government shutdown, for which the GOP largely took the blame, but also to remarks McConnell made recently suggesting he would support legislation that could lead to similar stoppages.

Grimes invoked another popular knock on the incumbent: That he’s simply been in Washington too long, with too few results to show for it.

“[McConnell is] not working for Kentucky,” Grimes continued. “Kentuckians are ready for someone whose vocabulary goes beyond the word, ‘No,’”

McConnell kept his comments focused less on Grimes and more on President Barack Obama, a strategy Republicans are employing in several Senate and House races this year.

“This administration has done a tremendous amount of damage to this country,” McConnell told the crowd. “My opponent is a new face, but she’s a new face for the status quo, a new face for Barack Obama, a new face to make Harry Reid the majority leader of the Senate.”

Tying Grimes to the president and current Senate majority leader — and portraying her as a would-be rubber stamp for their policies — is a sound strategy in a state where Obama, Reid and other national Democrats are wholly unpopular, analysts say.

“The more voters think of the election in terms of the party being supported rather than the individual being elected, the more trouble Grimes will have,” said D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Political Science.  “She might be able to win as a Democratic candidate, but she’ll have a harder time if Kentucky voters think of her as a vote to keep the Democrats in charge of the Senate.”

Voss says Grimes needs to focus on “lunch pail” issues — the kind of bread-and-butter economic issues that the poor and middle class worry about.

“[Those issues] have allowed Democrats to remain the dominant party in both party registration and statewide elected officers,” he said.

Analyst: Uphill Battle For Grimes

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said recent polls continue to show a tight race. But he’s not sure Grimes can pull it off. She faces several challenges, he said, including the fact that the party of the incumbent president has historically fared poorly in midterm elections.

“If the environment were more like 2006, her odds of winning would improve because the election cycle would be favorable to Democrats,” Skelley said. “But it’s 2014, and the political dynamics favor Republicans.

Moreover, he explained, despite Democrats’ edge in party registration, the state’s recent political shift isn’t on Grimes’ side.

“It’s difficult to see how a Democrat can win,” Skelley said, “in a state that Mitt Romney won 60.5% of the vote in.”