It's not Ashley Judd, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell finally has a top tier Democratic opponent in his re-election race – Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes announced Monday she would take on McConnell, the veteran GOP leader who has already raised more than $13 million for his 2014 race.
Grimes is a 34-year-old lawyer who won her statewide office in part by widely outspending her Republican opponent in 2011, something that will likely not be the case in her Senate bid.
"She won't be able to match McConnell's resources, but the important thing is whether or not she attracts enough money to put up a serious campaign," says Stephen Voss, political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "People don't want to put good money after bad and fund a campaign that is sure to fail. But she's already a long way toward convincing people she's a serious candidate and can be taken seriously as a challenger."
McConnell, who was first elected in 1984, is a top target for Democrats both for his role as a national Republican leader and because his poll numbers show vulnerability – he's just simply not well-liked by Kentucky voters. A recent survey by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling said just 36 percent of voters approved of the job he was doing, versus 54 percent who disapprove.
"His poll numbers are a bit weak; It's a long shot for sure, but no politician is invulnerable," Voss says. "At the end of the day they have to convince voters to keep them and that's never a sure thing."
Voss says Kentucky voters are open to supporting Democrats, despite the fact the President Barack Obama only garnered 38 percent of the vote in 2012. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is a Democrat, for example.
"We have a lot of voters in this state who are sometimes Democrats, not loyal Democrats; they are registered as Democrats but they often vote Republican," Voss says. "When do they vote for Democrats? When you have a moderate Democrat who is not too oriented to the party's Washington leaders, and [Grimes] so far has been able to portray herself as more of the Democrat who does well in Kentucky."
Grimes is also aided by the fact that her father is a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman, providing deep ties to the state's insider infrastructure, rather than to national Democrats.
Earlier this year, much ado was made over actress Ashley Judd, who was contemplating taking on McConnell. But Voss says Democrats have a better chance with Grimes.
"Ashley Judd would have been a novelty that attracted a lot of attention but ideologically she's the kind of Democrat who tends to do poorly in this state," he says. "Grimes, at least by reputation, is the sort of Democrat more like the governor who has been able to do rather well."
McConnell wasted no time trying to link Grimes to Washington Democrats in his statement following her announcement.
"Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama's Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas," McConnell said in a release. "The next 16 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 everyday to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas."
Grimes currently faces a trio of long shot Democrats in a primary before officially taking on McConnell.