By Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE Ky. (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republican chief Mitch McConnell of Kentucky won re-election to a sixth term, Reuters/Ipsos projected on Tuesday, moving a step closer to fulfilling his ambition of becoming majority leader of the chamber.
McConnell, 72, who was first elected in 1984, has pledged to battle President Barack Obama on issues ranging from healthcare to border security during the Democratic leader's final two years in office.
"Friends, this experiment in big government has lasted long enough. It’s time to go in a new direction," he told supporters at a post-election party in Louisville.
"But we do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree. I think we have a duty to do that," he added.
McConnell defeated Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a 35-year-old Democrat who refused to say during the campaign whether she had voted for Obama.
With McConnell and fellow Republicans seizing control of the Senate from Democrats, the veteran politician has the inside track to become the majority leader, a powerful position from which he could derail what remains of Obama's second-term legislative agenda.
Kentucky's junior U.S. Senator Rand Paul hailed McConnell's re-election as a "great victory for the country and for Kentucky."
"Tonight we begin to rebuild America," he said. "Under Mitch McConnell, we will send the president bill after bill until he wearies from it."
McConnell has said he would work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a signature piece of legislation for Obama.
After battling low approval ratings at home, McConnell hammered away at Grimes by relying on broad financial support from corporations and donors to launch a series of withering attack ads.
The longest-serving senator in Kentucky's history also used social media to soften his image and make light of his blandness.
When Grimes aired an ad recently saying "I'm not Barack Obama," McConnell hit back with an ad linking her to Obama's agenda on gun control, foreign policy, Obamacare and coal regulations, even though she opposes the president on the last issue.
The list of corporate donors to McConnell includes Citigroup and Raytheon. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a group set up by McConnell allies, touts large contributions from real estate tycoon Donald Trump, venture capitalist Lawrence DeGeorge of Florida and oil executive Curtis Mewbourne of Texas.
In their only debate, Grimes said McConnell represented Washington more than Kentucky after 30 years in office. Democrats pulled ad buys from the state in a blow to Grimes, but brought them back in the closing weeks with polls showing the race still tight.
Louisville voter Norman Anderson, a 40-year-old railroad worker, said he voted for McConnell, hoping that Republican control of both houses of Congress would boost an economy that he said "stinks."
"I look for more positive legislation instead of one side pointing the finger at the other," he said.
McConnell, born in Alabama, attended high school in Kentucky and graduated from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky’s law school.
In five previous Senate bids, he has won more than 55 percent of the vote only once. In his last race, in 2008, he won with 53 percent.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney, Eric Walsh and Jim Loney)