Kentucky Senate Race Will Be One Of 2014's Most Watched

Originally published on July 9, 2013 3:46 pm

Republican Mitch McConnell first won election to the Senate nearly 30 years ago, in 1984. This year he faces a Democrat who was born just a few years before McConnell took office, 34-year-old Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Political pundits point out that McConnell has one of the lowest incumbent approval ratings in Congress, and he won his last re-election by only six percentage points. McConnell might also face a Tea Party challenger.

But supporters of McConnell are fighting back with an Auto-Tune spoof of Grimes, and a political alliance with Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator.

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Roll Call “Grimes, 34, was elected as Kentucky’s secretary of state in 2011 with more than 60 percent of the vote in her first bid for public office. Before that, she was an attorney in Lexington. She is an attractive and articulate young woman who comes from a very politically active family.”

New York Daily News “The clip lasts 1 minute and 36 seconds, repeating the question, ‘What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?’ ‘Sticks to party line,’ ‘left wing mime’ and ‘not ready for prime time’ were the main answers given for words that sound like the Southern Belle’s last name.”


  • Phillip Bailey, political editor for Here & Now Contributors Network member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And we are 482 days away from the midterm elections, but it already feels a little like October 2014 in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from 34-year-old Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. And already the gloves are off.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Obama and Harry Reid are looking for senators who will jam through Obama's agenda - massive spending, Obamacare, the war on coal. Reid is having secret meetings with Alison Grimes because she's Obama's cheerleader in Kentucky, and they're attacking Mitch McConnell because he defends Kentucky, fighting Obama's Medicare...

HOBSON: That is from an outside group called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which is supporting Mitch McConnell, obviously. And for more on the race, let's bring in Phillip Bailey, political editor for HERE AND NOW Contributing Network station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. And, Phillip, why is this getting so hot so early?

PHILLIP BAILEY, BYLINE: There probably isn't a Republican who was more despised by national Democrats than Mitch McConnell. And because he's the leader of the Republican Caucus in the Senate, he is often the one who is associated with blocking, obstructing or, as this ad says, stopping in a good way President Obama's agenda. So the idea of defeating him is just as lucrative as winning two or three seats for Democrats.

HOBSON: And obviously, Democrats think they might have a chance to beat him. So is Mitch McConnell very unpopular in Kentucky?

BAILEY: Senator McConnell's numbers actually aren't that good for a sitting incumbent. I think it was Public Policy Polling, a Democratically leaning firm, that showed that he was the most unpopular senator in the country, and that's because not only are there Democrats who have opposition to Senator McConnell but a good number of Tea Party advocates and activists here in the state also have many issues with the senator.

HOBSON: And we should mention, of course, Kentucky is the state that is home to Rand Paul, who is one of the Tea Party stars. But Alison Grimes has also been out with out some ads. Let's listen to one of this. It features her grandmothers Elsie and Thelma.


ELSIE AND THELMA: This is our granddaughter, Alison Lundergan Grimes. It's a long name. She's running for secretary of state, and we're writing her TV ads.


THELMA: She thinks businesses should have one website to get all the permits and licenses.

GRIMES: I got that idea from you and grandpa and your clothing store.

THELMA: Her Kentucky First...

HOBSON: So she is just using the family here to try to get elected. So what do we know about her and her campaign?

BAILEY: Well, one thing that we saw when Alison Lundergan Grimes announced her Senate campaign, there was some uneasiness about the rollout. They didn't appear to have a campaign website for a few days for people to donate to her campaign. That ad is actually from her 2011 secretary of state race. So her campaign hasn't had the best beginning in the world.

HOBSON: What do we know about her?

BAILEY: At this point, what we know about Alison Lundergan Grimes is that she's a very well-connected Democrat. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former party chair here in Kentucky, former state rep, has close connections to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and for the most part, she has a pretty clean slate when it comes to issues so it makes it very hard for the McConnell campaign and its avowed Whac-A-Mole strategy to pin her down on these federal issues because she doesn't really have a whole lot to say about - or had a whole lot to say about them in the past.

HOBSON: And before we let go you, Phillip, I have to ask you about an ad that has gone viral. This is from Team Mitch.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alison Lundergan Grimes. What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes? What...


HOBSON: So what's this all about?

BAILEY: They're bringing Auto-Tune back. One thing that Senator McConnell is great at is these attack ads and mocking his opponents. That's what that ad attempts to do - mocking Alison Lundergan Grimes, who's known to be somewhat exuberant on the campaign stages. So in this way, the McConnell campaign may have actually helped Grimes because that ad continuously repeats her name, and for a candidate who's not really that well-known in Kentucky and outside of Kentucky, this actually might help Ms. Grimes.

HOBSON: Phillip Bailey is political editor for HERE AND NOW Contributing Network station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Phillip, thanks so much.

BAILEY: Thank you.

HOBSON: Catchy, isn't it, Robin?



It is.

We're back in a minute here, HERE AND NOW.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Alison Lundergan Grimes, Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes. What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.