What Mitch McConnell Can Learn from Harry Reid As He Faces Off Against Alison Lundergan Grimes

Kentucky Secretary of State and Democratic canidate for U.S. Senate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, left and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. (AP Photo/Getty Images)

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and colorful tea party conservative Sharron Angle of Nevada could not be more different politically. But as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wages the toughest fight of his 30-year career, don’t be surprised if he pulls a page from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2010 playbook and gives Grimes the Angle-treatment, painting her as a radical while touting the value of his seniority.

Considering Grimes, a 35-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party, in the same breath as Angle, a deeply flawed Republican candidate whose party often laughed at her, may seem outlandish. But for the McConnell machine — once described by an ally as a political “woodchippper” — the basic framework for the general election contest that begins today in Kentucky has similar contours to Reid’s 2010 bid, both Democratic and GOP analysts suggest. The race will be a contrast between a powerful incumbent who can bring home money and projects and a challenger whose viewpoints at times put her outside the conservative state’s mainstream.

“The backstop in that Reid campaign—which I believe has to be the same backstop that McConnell has—is that he can deliver more for Nevada or Kentucky more than anyone else. Everything was framed in the caveat of what he can do for you as a Nevadan,” said one senior Democratic strategist familiar with Reid’s 2010 operation.

And if there’s any political operation outside of Reid’s ruthless enough to discredit an opponent as thoroughly, it’s McConnell’s. In Nevada, “the messages were, ‘The economy is in the tank but there's nobody better to get you out of the tank’ [and] ‘Someone who can deliver versus someone who is coo-coo crazy,’” said the operative. “For Grimes, McConnell can try to say she's part of a party that's fringe. She's part of her party that's anti-coal.”

The Republican establishment in Washington is stacked with McConnell office alumni and supporters, and those among them approached for this story all had the same thing to say—that McConnell’s key strength is his ability to advocate better than anyone else for Kentuckians, while Grimes is too liberal for the state. In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, McConnell unveiled that theme in general election soundbyte form: “Obama needs Grimes. Kentucky needs McConnell.”

Meanwhile, the less well-known Grimes went up with her first statewide ad buy just last week, for which her campaign says it spent six figures. She plans to begin to air a second spot Wednesday, a campaign aide told Yahoo News, a direct camera ad that will “lay down the message as for why she’s running.” The aide declined to disclose the size of the buy.

Though outside groups have been spending millions for both candidates throughout the primary season, the first few weeks of the general election could play a larger role in setting the tone for the rest of the race, and perhaps in defining Grimes.

“No longer having to deal with the primary and looking toward the fall, you'll see a comparison of the two politicians’ parties, the nature of our state and the nature of our two parties here,” said former McConnnell chief of staff Billy Piper. “On the left, Grimes’ positions might be fine nationally, but they put her a bit out of the mainstream—at least in Kentucky.”

Piper spoke of the difficulties McConnell faced in 2008, one of the toughest years for Republicans anywhere, as the baseline on which to judge his prospects this fall: “The war was unpopular, the White House was unpopular, the country was facing serious economic issues. It was a competitive race and we won the general election by six points—and that's because when it came down to making a choice, Kentuckians were more comfortable voting for a Republican like Mitch McConnell than they were a Democrat.”

Over the past decade, the leadership perch has acted as a surprising Achilles heel for the Senate’s most influential and once-untouchable members, binding them to their party’s unpopular positions and leaders and leaving them vulnerable to claims that they are too inside Washington to understand voters back home. In 2004, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle could not overcome the political burden of being a standard bearer for national Democrats in a reddening South Dakota and was unseated by a fresh-faced Republican, John Thune.

Reid, perhaps wary of suffering Daschle’s fate, helped manipulate the GOP primary in 2010 to hand-select the candidate he perceived to be weakest. President George W. Bush had been out of office for two years, but Reid still tied Angle to the former president, without other GOP political foils available and with the ex-president still deeply unpopular with Nevada voters.

President Obama is likely to serve a similar role in the Kentucky race. If McConnell’s unfavorable rating of 49 percent in a recent Bluegrass poll is daunting for Republicans, Obama’s of 57 percent is equally so for Democrats.

In a struggle to frame the Kentucky race, nearly a dozen operatives and aides of both parties clashed on whether voters in Kentucky would view the race between Grimes and McConnell as a referendum on Obama or the Republican leader himself.

But what’s not up for debate is that with McConnell’s high unfavorables, he will have a difficult time moving public opinion on himself and will have to focus on shaping opinions on Grimes.

“It takes a lot more money to change people's minds than to introduce someone to somebody,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee deputy executive director Matt Canter. “I don't believe Republicans and McConnell have figured out how they're going to run this race, how they're going to make Mitch McConnell more popular, how they're going to discredit Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

A GOP consultant tracking the race pointed to veteran Republican ad-maker Larry McCarthy — whose relationship with McConnell dates back to his first Senate race in 1984 — as someone who could help polish the leader’s image, even in the face of terrible polling numbers. Though McCarthy is widely known for his negative ads (he was behind the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988 that sunk Democrat Michael Dukakis’ presidential bid), he also has crafted positive ads for Republicans in blue states, such as Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Some Republicans privately concede that the McConnell campaign and its allies will have to be surgical in their attempts to attack Grimes, and warn of the potential for negative optics if he’s seen as an old-man candidate bullying a young woman.

Already gender has proved a vexing variable in the race. In September, an official for the National Republican Senatorial Committee referred to Grimes as an “empty dress,” leading to a public outcry and Democrats rallying to Grimes’s side. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/04/alison-lundergan-grimes-empty-dress_n_3865060.html

The McConnell campaign will need to strike a balance between painting Grimes as “not ready for primetime,” as it did on the Democrat’s first day of the race last July, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/07/alison-lundergan-grimes-gets-harsh-welcome-to-kentucky-senate-race-from-mcconnell-campaign/ and avoiding strategies that provoke accusations of sexism.

That’s where Obama and Reid could be of use again, by becoming proxy targets for McConnell and every GOP group dedicated to keeping him in office. There’s no charge of sexism to be found in attacking Obama.

“It's a pretty simple message,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP consultant and former communications director for the NRSC. “Any vote for [Grimes] is a vote for President Obama. It's a vote for Harry Reid.”