Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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May 23, 2014

RONNIE ELLIS: Senate campaign already in full bloom

FRANKFORT — Any hope for a respite in the U.S. Senate campaign following Tuesday’s primary disappeared immediately. Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes came out swinging in victory speeches which sounded like campaign kickoffs.

McConnell commended Matt Bevin on “a tough (primary) race” and appealed to Bevin supporters to unite behind his re-election bid. That will be hard for Bevin and those who backed him.

McConnell is known for aggressive campaigns and defining opponents negatively. Normally, he’s disparaging Democrats, not fellow Republicans. For McConnell, it’s not personal; when the campaign is over, it’s over in his mind.

But it is personal to Bevin. To some degree he has himself to blame for cooperating with McConnell’s efforts to paint him as less than credible by mishandling multiple controversies. But he doesn’t see it that way and he is genuinely hurt by some of the things said about him. So are many of his supporters.

But if it’s never been personal for McConnell, his comments Tuesday night about Barack Obama — against whom McConnell prefers to campaign than against Grimes — sure sounded personal. Those watching on television could see McConnell’s eyes following the lines on the teleprompter — but they could also hear the undisguised disdain in his voice. His anecdotes about “Obamacare” featured only women, an acknowledgment McConnell has work to do with women.

Later Grimes spoke to her supporters, demonstrating he skills on the stump have improved significantly since she began her 10-day, 50-county bus tour. Grimes was equally forceful and impressive.

Whereas McConnell rarely mentions an opponent by name, Grimes frequently directly addresses McConnell. “Sen. McConnell, this race is between you and me,” she said, looking directly into the camera. As obviously as McConnell wants to nationalize the race and make it about a president unpopular in Kentucky, Grimes wants it to be about McConnell.

She knows McConnell’s poll numbers are awful for an incumbent; she also knows McConnell’s message about Obama, coal and Harry Reid resonate in eastern Kentucky where Democrats used to be reliable votes. She has to be at least a bit concerned that her margins in coal-producing counties, while still over 60 percent, didn’t match her statewide margin of 76 percent.

She’s begun to address the issue in nearly every speech and now in her latest television ad. She says she’ll not answer to any president but to the people of Kentucky. She also subtly reminded voters Tuesday night that the next president might be her friend Hillary Clinton. That does a couple of things: the Clintons are popular in Kentucky and Grimes would have easy access to her to lobby on behalf of Kentucky coal.

She’s also begun another tack — she reminds her crowds that the lost coal jobs and the increased regulations occurred while Mitch McConnell has been Kentucky’s senator. That won’t move the Kentucky Coal Association, which doesn’t formally endorse candidates but has been pretty clear about which candidate it prefers.

Grimes ally and coal supporter, Greg Stumbo, points out the KCA is primarily made up of “the guys at the top,” not the “miners who lost their jobs.” Those are the people Grimes must persuade. Expect to see more from people like Harlan County magistrate David Kennedy who is featured in a Grimes video talking about McConnell’s failure to bring jobs to the region. Look for her as well to copy Stumbo in suggesting McConnell should have tried harder to win concessions for Kentucky’s coal industry from the president rather than simply obstructing anything sought by Obama.

Fancy Farm traditionally kicks off campaign season in Kentucky. Not this year. It’s already in full swing.

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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