Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

May 24, 2013

RONNIE ELLIS: Who will challenge McConnell?

FRANKFORT — I’ve spent years watching Mitch McConnell, several of them interviewing and reporting on him.

Over time I’ve seen how difficult it is for a challenger to beat McConnell even though he’s not beloved, even by many in his own party who have consistently voted for him. I tend to dismiss early polls which show he’s vulnerable in 2014.

As Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, points out, McConnell never runs a race based on the last campaign. He’s always prepared for the next one and he’s always better funded. As the infamous surreptitious recording of his campaign strategy session demonstrates, his opposition research never takes a break.

Kentucky Democrats apparently agree with me. None seems to want to risk a brutal campaign against a man who always makes the race about his opponent rather than about him. That’s why many Democrats think Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is the best opponent for McConnell. Her youth, gender and lack of a long or controversial public record, plus her presumed ability to raise money through family and friendship with the Clintons, Democrats believe, make her a difficult target.

Grimes says she won’t be “bullied” into a decision, but there are risks if she delays much longer. If Grimes doesn’t make a decision soon, McConnell or an allied SuperPac may mount a pre-emptive strike just as they did against Ashley Judd. If those attacks create negative impressions of Grimes they may follow and haunt her in future races for other offices even if she doesn’t run against McConnell. Grimes also risks blame for “freezing the field” if she decides not to run and Democrats can’t recruit a top-tier candidate — which clearly they’re having difficulty doing already.

If she is going to run, she needs to start raising money quickly. McConnell has already raised more than $12 million. While Grimes or some other declared Democrat is busy raising money, McConnell will be spending his attacking the Democrat who won’t likely have the ability to respond quickly. By the time Grimes or another Democrat has the resources to try to get voters to focus on McConnell, it may be too late.

I’ve also been skeptical about a competitive tea party challenge. Rand Paul and Thomas Massie aren’t available, so who is there? But tea party sources insist there will be one.

McConnell’s own behavior seems to indicate he fears a challenge from the right. His campaign recently circulated stories of an endorsement by a national tea party group. McConnell has relentlessly attacked President Barack Obama and he’s pounced on the AP subpoena and IRS controversies, accusing Obama’s administration of a “jihad” against opponents (a little subliminal message for those on the far right who suspect Obama is a secret Muslim?).

He’s jumped on Paul’s bandwagon, including support for industrial hemp. He hired Paul operative Jesse Benton to manage his campaign — at least through the primary. He even stood side by side at a press conference with Michelle Bachman, the tea party Congresswoman from Minnesota who never met a conspiracy theory she didn’t like.

In 2008, McConnell ran on his seniority and influence in the Senate, boasting of his ability to bring federal funds back to Kentucky. That won’t work with those on his right in today’s climate. He’s trying to recast his image as an enemy of big government spending and a friend of the tea party and liberty groups.

We’ll see if that works. But it’s clearly an indication McConnell sees a threat from the right.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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