By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Mitch McConnell is well known for never underestimating his opponents. Given the way things have gone lately, it’s probably good he doesn’t.
The race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by McConnell, the Republican Leader of the Senate, heated up on several fronts Thursday.
The day after Louisville businessman and tea party-backed Matthew Bevin announced he’d challenge McConnell in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, his likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes released a web video directly challenging the five-term senator.
“Let The Campaign” begin is a 3-minute, 41-second video Grimes sent to supporters in advance of next Tuesday’s official “kickoff” in Lexington at which she will be accompanied by Gov. Steve Beshear and other prominent Democrats. (Grimes announced on July 1 she was running in a hastily arranged press conference criticized by Republicans for its lack of preparation and organization.)
The ad recalls the humorous ad Grimes ran two years ago in her successful bid for Secretary of State in which she sat between her two grandmothers who were busy at laptop computers working on campaign themes. Since then, one of the women – Thelma – has died. The web video includes a replay of that ad after which Grimes, seated at the same table in the same room, said she’s running for Senate on behalf of her deceased grandmother and people like her.
She goes onto say elected officials must stand by their principles but also find compromise in pursuit of good public policy, something that’s not happening now in Washington.
“Sen. McConnell is the biggest part of the problem,” she says, and says he’d blocked compromise “out of spite.” Grimes says she doesn’t always “agree with the president” but will work to find ways to help Kentucky and then addresses McConnell directly.
“Now, this part is for you Sen. McConnell. Your campaign wants to play silly games about where I am and where I stand,” Grimes says looking at the camera. “Well, I’m right here in Kentucky, Senator, where I’ll be holding you accountable.” (McConnell’s campaign has almost daily asked in press releases “Where’s Alison?” since her July 1 announcement.)
She then goes on to list several votes cast by McConnell, including on Medicare, women’s issues and the minimum wage and ends by saying, “As you’ve probably seen, Senator, I don’t scare easy.” Grimes is then joined by her surviving grandmother, Elsie, who sits down with a laptop and says, “And neither do I, Senator. What rhymes with Mitch? It’s time for a switch. Let’s get started, honey. This one’s for Thelma.”
On the same day, however, Laurel County Republican County Clerk Dean Johnson filed an ethics complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission over an email he and other clerks received last week at their state email addresses from the Grimes campaign.
Grimes’ campaign didn’t immediately respond to the complaint.
Meanwhile, Bevin was on the second day of his multi-city announcement tour, stopping in Owensboro, Paducah and Bowling Green Thursday.
The McConnell campaign wasn’t ignoring Bevin either, asking television stations to take down an ad Bevin began airing Wednesday because it fails to include the required disclaimer that the candidate approves the message in the ad.
The campaign was also touting a poll by a Republican pollster, Wenzell Strategies, which shows McConnell with a commanding lead over Bevin and a smaller lead over Grimes. Democratic leaning polls, such as Public Policy Polling which is associated with Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, have shown the race with Grimes much closer.
It also turns out the McConnell campaign contacted Republican state lawmakers urging them to attend the events by Bevin this week and serve as rebuttal spokesmen for McConnell. Some Republican House members said they were asked to attend the events but didn’t want to comment on the record because they were unable to go.
At Wednesday’s announcement by Bevin in the state capitol Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown watched from just outside the rotunda, along with fellow Republican state Senators Ernie Harris of Crestwood, Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, and Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville.
“We were invited to attend the day before” by the McConnell campaign, Harris said Thursday. “We were invited to go since we were already here in the capitol” (for legislative committee meetings).
Frankfort was buzzing Thursday about what impact Bevin’s entry might have. Several Republican lawmakers gathered for lunch in the capitol annex cafeteria and talked about the race but none thought Bevin represented a serious primary threat to McConnell.
“Not that great in my area,” said Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, who represents six Republican counties along Kentucky’s Tennessee border. “We’re a pretty establishment area. There’s not that much tea party organized presence in any of my counties.”
The public has an opportunity next week to make its own comparison of most of the Senate candidates when they share a stage at Fancy Farm in Graves County on Sat., Aug. 2.
Mark Wilson, Political Chair for the annual Fancy Farm Picnic – a must-attend event for Kentucky statewide candidates – announced Bevin will speak along with McConnell and Grimes.
Also accepting an invitation to speak was Democrat Ed Marksberry, an Owensboro contractor who is also running for his party’s senate nomination.
Wilson had no word yet on two other Democrats: Louisville music promoter Bennie Smith and University of Louisville professor Greg Leichty. There was also no word on 90-year-old Gurley Martin of Owensboro who has said he plans to file for the race as a Republican.
The state’s top two Democrats, Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, are skipping this year’s event. But Beshear told Gina Kinslow of the Glasgow Daily Times, a CNHI paper, on Wednesday he would be at Grimes’ kickoff next Tuesday and planned to campaign and raise money for her.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.