Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes will be watched like a hawk for the next few months, and you can bet she knows it. Grimes, who currently serves as Kentucky's Secretary of State, easily won the Democratic primary on Tuesday and will advance to face long-time senator and incumbent Mitch McConnell in November's general election.
Grimes seeks to unseat McConnell as one of Kentucky's senators. That would be a major coup for the Democrats, since McConnell is Senate Minority Leader and a major thorn in the side of Democrats on many issues. To that end, Grimes is using a classic approach when running against an incumbent. She is out to convince people that it is time for a change.
Of course, the last thing Mitch McConnell wants is change, in one sense. But McConnell is also a seasoned veteran of electoral politics. He has held his seat in the Senate since 1985. He has fended off many challenges to his seat; the perennial "Ditch Mitch" yard signs and bumper stickers have had no effect on him.
McConnell knows that you can't run against a message of "change" with a message of "status quo", not in a time when people are hurting. If folks were doing well and felt they would continue to do well, the old "don't change horses midstream" approach would work. But now it won't, and McConnell knows it.
McConnell's approach, instead, is two-pronged. He knows that Kentucky has been a red state ever since 2000. The Bluegrass State swung for Bill Clinton twice, even while keeping McConnell every time they had the chance to vote. And Kentucky has kept Democrat governor's for 50+ years -- briefly interrupted by a single term for Republican Ernie Fletcher from 2003-2007. But Kentucky was firmly in the red zone against Obama. So prong one of McConnell's plan is to paint Alison Lundergan Grimes as "Obama's candidate".
Prong two is to co-opt Grimes' call for "change" by calling for some "change" himself. But in McConnell's case, the change he wants is to become Senate Majority Leader. His hope is to lead the charge in a nationwide rout of Democrats, sweeping Republicans into a majority victory in November. His message to Kentuckians is to re-elect him, and take the lead in the nation.
For her part, Grimes is countering by asserting her independence from Obama and the Democrat party in general. She says she is against coal regulations, even though Republicans will say she supports them. She is taking her message of independence directly to the people in Eastern Kentucky, where coal mining jobs are at the top of the list of priorities.
Grimes will have the task of portraying McConnell as an establishment relic, the leader of the gridlock in Washington, and the puppet of the oil industry, who stands to gain personally, but will bring nothing back to Kentucky when he does. It will be a tough sell. Every McConnell opponent so far has tried that approach. So far, all have failed.
But the stars are aligning a bit differently in this election than before. Despite Grimes' need to assert her independence, there is little doubt that Democrat money will pour in to Kentucky over the next five months. Big Dem names will show up in the state, maybe even a Clinton.
What Grimes knows is that Democrats outnumber Republicans in Kentucky by a margin of 57% to 37%. But that margin has still kept McConnell for 30 years. To win, she must be seen as her own woman, not Obama's. She must walk the line that so many Democrat governors have walked to win in Kentucky. She must be seen as loyal to her state, not to the party.
Grimes is already being peppered with specific questions aimed at determining her loyalties. For example, would she have voted for Obamacare, had she been in the Senate instead of McConnell at the time?
Grimes says she will work to "fix Obamacare". She knows that the ACA, while not popular as a concept in Kentucky, is nonetheless being used in huge waves, thanks to a program set up by Governor Steve Beshear that put the national ACA registry website to shame. She can't say she likes Obamacare, but she can't say she wants to get rid of it or never would have voted for it either.
McConnell says he will continue to try to pull Obamacare out by the roots. Time will tell if Kentuckians still approve of his approach now that they are able to go see a doctor.
Grimes has an uphill battle ahead of her. McConnell is an adept electioneer. The one sure thing is that Kentuckians are about to be deluged with big-money campaign ads from both sides.
Image via Alison for Kentucky