FRANKFORT, Ky. — Declaring that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has “lost touch” with Kentucky voters, the state’s 34-year-old secretary of state announced Monday that she would seek to unseat him in 2014, ending a long search by Democrats for a competitive challenger to the deep-pocketed, five-term Republican.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who had been touted as the Democrats’ best hope of defeating McConnell, began seriously considering the race after actress Ashley Judd opted out in March.
Grimes, a lawyer from a well-connected Kentucky family who was first elected in 2011, launched her bid with tough words for the 71-year-old McConnell, the longest-serving U.S. senator in state history.
“I agree with thousands of Kentuckians that Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction, that Kentucky is tired of someone who has voted against raising the minimum wage while all the while quadrupling his own net worth,” Grimes told reporters. “Kentucky is tired of a senior senator that has lost touch with Kentucky issues, voters and their values.”
McConnell, who has already raised some $13 million for his re-election bid and is known for running bare-knuckled campaigns, released a statement saying he looks forward to “a respectful exchange of ideas” with Grimes. The senator described her as President Barack Obama’s Kentucky candidate.
“The next sixteen months will provide a great opportunity for Kentuckians to contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government-rationed health care with someone who works every day to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas,” McConnell said. “Together we’ve invested a lot to ensure that Kentucky’s voice in the U.S. Senate is heard from the front of the line rather than the back-bench and I intend to earn the support to keep it there.”
Polls have shown McConnell’s favorability lacking in Kentucky, making him vulnerable to a Democratic challenger.
Grimes, whose father once headed the state Democratic party, received 61 percent of the vote when she was elected two years ago. Her campaign included a folksy TV ad that featured her grandmothers.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Bill Garmer and Kentucky environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald both eyed the 2014 Senate race on the Democratic side, but had said they would run only if Grimes didn’t.
Three longshot Democrats already have declared their intentions to run.
Grimes became the likely contender after Judd bowed out in March. A former Kentucky resident now living in suburban Nashville, Tenn., Judd had met with several Democratic leaders to discuss the race. She even purchased a home in the northeastern Kentucky city of Ashland, where she once lived.
Known for her liberal political views, Judd, the star of such films as “Double Jeopardy” and “Kiss the Girls,” would have been running in a largely conservative state where Republicans hold both Senate seats and five of the six seats in the U.S. House. McConnell aides talked about her past bouts with depression, previous political statements and religious views during a strategy session with the senator that was secretly recorded by a political activist earlier this year. The FBI is investigating whether the activist illegally recorded the meeting.
Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats’ biggest prize of the 2014 election. He has been an outspoken critic of Obama and would move up to Senate majority leader should Republicans recapture the Senate in 2014. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending next year, while Democrats try to hold onto 21.
Grimes met privately with supporters, including two former Democratic governors and several state lawmakers, before announcing her decision.
The announcement came just days after the conservative group Kentuckians for Strong Leadership began running a TV spot attacking Grimes as a cheerleader for Obama. The ad began airing in the Louisville, Lexington and Paducah markets last week and was scheduled to continue through July 11. The McConnell campaign has already been running online attacks against Grimes.
The attacks are part of a well-used strategy by Kentucky Republicans to try to link the state’s Democrats to Obama, who is widely unpopular in Kentucky, a state he lost in both 2008 and 2012.
McConnell, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1984, has never lost an election. He spent more than $20 million in 2008 to beat Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, by 6 percentage points.
Grimes will begin the race at a distinct fundraising disadvantage. But former Gov. Julian Carroll said he is convinced that Grimes, who is expected to have the backing of former President Bill Clinton, a family friend, will be able to raise sufficient funds to defeat McConnell.
“You know what, you can’t with money buy everything,” Carroll said. “I am convinced that she will beat him and beat him rather well. There is an undercurrent in Kentucky that it’s time for Mitch to go.”
Grimes’ father, former Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, said his daughter carefully weighed her prospects.
“We wanted to make sure that we could get into it and win,” he said. “I think that when you see the ads that Sen. McConnell is running ... he’s a little nervous.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Executive Director Rob Collins said McConnell “is engaged in the most innovative, modern, and effective campaign in history and will make the case that conservative ideas will protect Kentucky from the radical assault on their livelihood being waged by President Obama, Harry Reid and Alison Lundergan Grimes.”
Collins said Kentucky voters “have absolutely no reason to send Alison Lundergan Grimes to Washington to help pass the policies of a President whom they adamantly oppose.”