How Alison Lundergan Grimes Can Defeat Mitch McConnell

Alison Lundergan Grimes can beat Mitch McConnell. But like most congressional campaigns, which often can be decided by the national political winds, Grimes' success will be determined by several factors over which she will be able to exercise very little oversight.
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Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was more than 30 minutes late to her hastily-arranged press conference -- held in a cramped, non-airconditioned room that used to double as an AFL-CIO hall -- to announce her decision to challenge U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his 2014 reelection bid.

The delay was fitting, giving the more-than-three-month "due diligence" process Grimes took to decide on a run after actress and humanitarian Ashley Judd withdrew from consideration in March.

Grimes' foot-dragging, however, should not be attributed to any lack of enthusiasm for political battle or a poor work ethic -- she has both in spades. Rather, the Type A+ Grimes and her deeply engaged father, former two-time state party chairman Jerry Lundergan, probably understood that the announcement's timing was one of the very few things that they would be able to control in the campaign.

Alison Lundergan Grimes can beat Mitch McConnell. But like most congressional campaigns, which often can be decided by the national political winds, Grimes' success will be determined by several factors over which she will be able to exercise very little oversight. Here are a few that might make the difference between a Grimes victory and a McConnell sixth term:

Barack Obama

The McConnell team has not merely hinted that it will be doing everything in its power to tie Alison Grimes to the president, who is quite unpopular in this deeply red state; it has whack-a-moled the theme in all of its early political advertisements. Just this past week, a GOP Super PAC spent more than a quarter of a million dollars attacking the non-announced Grimes as a senator "who would jam through Obama's agenda -- massive spending, Obamacare, the war on coal."

This case would ordinarily be a tough sell: Grimes has long had both feet planted in the Clinton camp, has received considerable support from the coal industry and in the mostly administrative position of Secretary of State, has never had to take a position on the hot-button social and economic issues that have made Obama unpopular in the Bluegrass State.

In her brief announcement press conference, she signaled an early distancing from the president when she dodged a reporter's question about Obamacare by answering, "Regardless of the vote that is issued in this race, we cannot change who our president is. But we can change who we have in Washington representing Kentucky."

Still, any case can be made when it is backed with many millions of dollars in television ads. Which brings us to Factor 2:

Independent Political Organization Spending

While editorial pages and good government activists have pilloried the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United that provided corporations with the same political speech rights as individuals, there's been no more prominent and passionate advocate for unrestricted (and undisclosed) campaign spending than Mitch McConnell. It's no wonder then that McConnell and his allies have been preparing for years to take full advantage of this tremendous financial power.

Much has been made in recent months of McConnell's decision to protect his right flank from Tea Party insurrection by hiring as his campaign manager Jesse Benton, a key political lieutenant (and relative through marriage) of both Ron and Rand Paul. But fewer have noticed that the true center of power, and the real big money channels in the campaign, are being exercised by McConnell allies in organizations independent of the Senate campaign. First and foremost, there's American Crossroads, founded by key McConnell allies Karl Rove and Mike Duncan; but expect big things also from a brand new Super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, led by Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell aide and former White House deputy to Rove.

For Grimes to prevail, Democratic groups need to be equally as engaged. Already two organizations have spent more than $250,000 in ads targeting McConnell's vulnerabilities as a Medicare-slashing career politician. But in the run up to today's announcement, Grimes and supporters were transparent about the need for a much more massive national fundraising commitment on her behalf. Perhaps her entry into the race is a signal that she's receive some of those assurances.

Mark Putnam

Unless you are a political junkie, you are probably not familiar with the soft-spoken, 40-something political ad man who has vaulted to the top of his class with exceptionally creative, successful efforts on behalf of Democrats in red states such as Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Begich and Brian Schweitzer. One of Putnam's most lauded efforts came on behalf of Alison Grimes in her 2011 Secretary of State's race. In a funny, disarming ad featuring the candidate's charming grandmothers, Putnam was able to diffuse one of Grimes' recognized liabilities -- her fiery, high volume speaking style comes off poorly in the cooler medium of television -- while emphasizing her likeability. Watch below:

Putnam and his team, however, will need to get to work fast. Grimes is still largely unknown in the state -- nearly half of all Kentuckians still don't recognize her name -- so she must define herself before McConnell convinces the Commonwealth that she is the self-aggrandizing, Obama-loving caricature that his team has been trying to paint over the past few months.

There are over 16 months left until Election Day, giving Alison Lundergan Grimes plenty of time to make the case for change in Kentucky. But if the past few months are any indication, be prepared for a roller-coaster ride.

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