Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has won re-election in Kentucky, staving off Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, according to a CNN projection.
Republicans expect McConnell to lead the Senate if his party wins control of the upper chamber.
McConnell, who as Senate Republican leader is already one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, defeated his 35-year old Democratic challenger, in one of the most expensive contests of the campaign cycle. Grimes proved to be a surprisingly formidable opponent and was close in many polls throughout the campaign.
But CNN’s exit polls found McConnell succeeded in turning the race into a referendum on whether Democrats or Republicans should run the Senate. Of those interviewed, 86% said party control was important to them – and they broke 55% to 43% for McConnell over Grimes.
Meanwhile, 38% of Kentucky voters said they wanted their ballots to express opposition to President Barack Obama; nearly all of them voted for McConnell.
Despite her political inexperience, Grimes forced the veteran incumbent to stay on offense throughout the campaign. Grimes got high-profile visits from top Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But Obama was the Democrat who McConnell tried to associate mostly with Grimes, arguing she would be a rubber stamp for his policies, many of which are deeply unpopular in Kentucky. Grimes stumbled late in the campaign when she repeatedly refused to say if she had voted for the president.
Grimes told voters it was time to out McConnell in favor of a fresh voice in Washington. Calling him “Sen. Gridlock” and “Sen. Shutdown,” she argued he was one of the root causes of dysfunction in the capital.
McConnell ran on his support for coal, gun rights and other issues popular with Kentucky voters. But he also presented himself as a change agent in Washington, despite his 30 years in the Senate.
“The only thing they can do in 2014 to begin to change the direction of the country is to change the makeup of the Senate,” McConnell told CNN’s Dana Bash in a September interview.