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McConnell's opponent connected to big donors, big hitters

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alison Lundergan Grimes is taking on Senate Rpublican leader Mitch McConnell
  • She's raising money and has the backing of the Clintons
  • The race is expected to be one of the most expensive during this midterm season
  • McConnell has a tough primary and Grimes does not; Will that work against her, or for her?

Washington (CNN) -- On paper, the race in Kentucky between Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, should be pretty clear-cut: The experienced veteran easily beats a political novice. But like most things, it's not.

McConnell must cross the first hurdle by beating his primary challenger, Matt Bevin, before he engages in what is expected to be one of the most expensive and bitterly fought Senate campaigns this midterm season.

A lot is at stake overall in November: control of the Senate and the political fate of one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.

Grimes' advantage

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Grimes, 35, was just 7 when McConnell was first elected to the Senate.

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While he rose up the ranks in Washington and became Senate Republican leader, Grimes practiced law and won statewide office as secretary of state in 2011.

Despite her short political career, like McConnell, her name carries weight -- for better or worse.

Grimes' family has a long history in state Democratic politics. Her father, Jerry, was the former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and a state legislator. But he was forced out of those roles over legal problems facing his catering company.

While the family name has been battered, its connections survive: She'll have access to the deep pockets and support of her father's allies, including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The former President has already hit the trail for Grimes, raising more than $600,000 at one Louisville event in February.

That was a significant chunk of cash for the one-time, part-time kickboxing instructor, helping to build her war chest for a race that some experts predict could reach $100 million in spending.

Grimes has already raised $8 million and she outraised McConnell in two of the past three quarters.

Hollywood is among her biggest donors. Ousting the top Senate Republican has attracted national attention. Remember when actress Ashley Judd was rumored to be considering a run?

Grimes' political career

But Grimes has built her own credentials in Kentucky politics, Stephen Voss, political science professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said.

"She hasn't made any major errors in her statewide office," he said. "Then again it's also not an office where you can distinguish yourself either."

Her relative inexperience, however, was an issue early on. She was heavily criticized and mocked after her Senate announcement last July.

McConnell's campaign team created a video that pointed out that she used her secretary of state campaign banner, had no signs and few supporters in attendance. She also looked like a deer in headlights.

While her "official" campaign announcement took place 30 days later and ran much more smoothly, Voss said her campaign has so far been "passive."

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Even though she announced in July, she didn't release her first television ad until two weeks ago.

Voss said her strategy to lay low saved campaign cash, letting McConnell get beat up by his primary opponent. But critics say she missed an opportunity to define herself when the campaign noise was relatively quiet.

"Both she and the McConnell campaign will have a tug-of-war over how she will be defined," Voss said.

Josh Holmes, senior adviser in McConnell's campaign, did just that in an interview with CNN.

"She was recruited to run by (Senate Democratic Leader) Harry Reid to help Democrats hold onto the Senate, and for most people in Kentucky, that's a pretty easy choice," he said.

Grimes' campaign defends its strategy, saying the organization has spent its time and money setting up an extensive organization throughout Kentucky that will lead to voter outreach and Election Day votes.

On primary night, she is concluding a 10-day, 50-county bus tour, an aggressive attempt to introduce herself to voters across the state, effectively launching her campaign in earnest.

The issues

Like Democrats across the country, Grimes is touting her support for an increase of the minimum wage, an issue that is intended to persuade working women to vote on Election Day.

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But politics are still local. Kentucky is the nation's third-largest coal producer and who likes coal more is likely to be a major issue in the race.

Grimes says she is a major supporter of coal and her campaign said she opposes the Environmental Protection Agency's carbon limits on power plants. That is a position opposite the one that President Barack Obama and most Democrats in the Senate take.

The McConnell campaign is charging hypocrisy as she receives funds from Democrats who support the EPA's stricter standards.

But Grimes will paint McConnell as a powerful elected official who stood by and watched coal jobs leave the state.

With the general election now on the horizon, Grimes is in a good place. McConnell has low approval numbers and major polls show her about tied with the long-time senator.

But as Voss points out, the number of people who don't know who Grimes is or have no opinion about her leaves a blank canvas for her to paint or McConnell to exploit.

Complete 2014 coverage

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