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Poised for a promotion, Kentucky’s McConnell paints Grimes as an Obama supporter

Kentucky's Senate race pits the second most powerful Republican in Washington against a hard-charging 35-year-old Democratic challenger. Five-time incumbent Mitch McConnell stands to become the next majority leader, but he's also unpopular in his home state. Meanwhile, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has had to keep her distance from another unpopular politician, President Obama. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On the eve of Election Day 2014, candidates from one end of the country to the other scrambled to reach every voter who could put them over the top. Races for the U.S. Congress and for one-third of the governors, along with thousands of state-level contests, are on the ballot.

    But nowhere is more at stake than in the 36 campaigns for the U.S. Senate, where Republicans have a chance to take the majority away from Democrats.

    One of the most closely watched involves a sitting senator who could get a big promotion if that happens, and if he’s reelected. It’s the Bluegrass State. And it’s where I spent this weekend.

    What I found is, in a year awash in negative campaigns, it doesn’t get much more negative than Kentucky.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R), Kentucky:

    After six years of this, we have seen the results. This is the slowest recovery after a deep recession since World War II. These people have run this country in the ground, and they need to be stopped.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES, Democratic Senate Candidate:

    We’re tired somebody that is just interested in self-promotion and self-preservation, and stopped being a public servant, when you’re all you’re trying to do is worry about your own job, instead of the jobs here in Kentucky.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It’s a scorched-earth race, pitting the second most powerful Republican in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, against a hard-charging 35-year-old Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

    About the only thing both camps agree on is that there’s a lot at stake, but clearly more so for McConnell. With a real chance that Republicans may the majority in the Senate, he stands on the cusp of an even bigger job. It’s a prize many Republicans can already taste.

  • MAN:

      That’s why we need to elect Mitch McConnell as the next majority leader of the United States Senate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But there’s a wrinkle. Despite the five terms under his belt, or, for many, because of them, McConnell is not viewed favorably by most Kentucky voters.

  • STEPHEN VOSS, University of Kentucky:

    He’s extremely unpopular.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss says McConnell’s critics are made up of two very different groups.

  • STEPHEN VOSS:

    We have Democrats, we have liberal Democrats. They’re not happy with him for being the Republican leader. But then he has voters on the right who want him obstructing the president, and when he finally stitches together a compromise, they’re angry that he didn’t stick to principles and didn’t hold the line.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Voss says the most conservative voters zero in on his role shaping a last-minute bipartisan budget deal last year. McConnell himself acknowledges his unpopularity.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    You get targeted. If you are the leader of one of the parties — Harry Reid had the same thing in 2010 — if you’re the leader, you get a big race.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Whatever the reason, Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth, concedes there’s someone on voters’ minds here this year who’s even more unpopular than McConnell.

  • REP. JOHN YARMUTH, (D) Kentucky:

    Mitch McConnell’s disapproval ratings are extremely high. He’s been upside-down on that for several years. People are not happy with him, they’re not excited by him.

    I think if — I hate to say it, because I support the president, but if it weren’t for President Obama, I think he’d have no chance at all of being reelected. Across Kentucky, there are a lot of people who are irrationally critical of the president.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Irrational or not, the president has been McConnell’s main target, more so than even Grimes.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    Who are these people?  I can tell you the kind of folks they got down at the White House. They’re all a bunch of college professors and community organizers. And they think they are smarter than all the rest of us. And they want to tell us how to live our lives. And starting Tuesday, we’re pushing back against that kind of thing.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    McConnell says a vote for Grimes is a vote to enable the president.

    Senator McConnell is saying the reason people shouldn’t vote for you in Kentucky is because he said you’re going to be a reliable vote for President Obama for the next two years.

  • ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES:

    Well, it’s just another falsehood that Mitch McConnell has put out. It shows he has no record to run on. They know my record. They know my work as an independent problem solver that will put the people of this state first, not the millionaires and billionaires that Mitch McConnell is bought and paid for by.

    Are you all ready to stand up and fight and bring home this victory?

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Grimes, the daughter of a well-known figure in Kentucky politics, has been taken seriously because she raised more money than any Democrat ever has in the state and because she’s been able to remain competitive in the polls. She’s also been helped by longtime family friends, who, unlike the president, are highly popular in Kentucky.

    Both Bill and Hillary Clinton returned to Kentucky in the closing days of the campaign.

  • HILLARY CLINTON, Former Secretary of State:

    Tuesday is your chance to reject the guardians of gridlock.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Prompting McConnell to take a swipe at them as well.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    I was amused, as I’m sure you were, by Hillary Clinton a couple of days ago declaring that businesses don’t create jobs.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    Good grief.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    Well, I’ll tell you, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat. I can tell you that.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Grimes, who’s refused even to say whether she voted for the president, in our interview avoided mention of Obama and praised the Clintons.

  • ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES:

    They were here because Kentucky is Clinton country, despite what Mitch McConnell might believe. And under President Clinton, we had the largest economic expansion that this nation has ever seen. It was the jobs president coming here to endorse me, the jobs candidate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It may be a preview of coming national Democratic divisions as 2016 draws closer, if a split develops between Clinton Democrats and President Obama. But, for now, Democrats are on the same page, invoking issues like a higher minimum wage.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    And, yes, Alison supports raising the minimum wage to give hardworking Kentuckians a better shot.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Whether it’s enough to push Grimes over the finish line in Kentucky is another matter.

    Some voters are attracted to the idea that McConnell could be moving to a powerful new position.

    Michael Brennan heads a company that makes coal mining machinery.

  • MICHAEL BRENNAN:

    We have a unique opportunity here in the state of Kentucky to have the leader of the Senate, and that doesn’t happen very often. He can do very, very good things for this state as the leader of the Senate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But others, like Estelle Bayer, say they’re tired of having a senator who is known for blocking change, rather than encouraging it.

  • ESTELLE BAYER:

    If you don’t get anything done in 30 years, we don’t need you. We need somebody new and fresh and intelligent, somebody who is willing to work with other people, not just obstruct.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    McConnell and outside groups supporting his campaign have raised and spent a record amount of money, almost $55 million, swamping by better than 2-1 the impressive haul raised by Grimes. In the closing days, his TV spots are visibly outrunning hers.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    Barack Obama will be gone in three years. We’re going to have a future when we get past this administration.

  • ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES:

    I’m not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on gun, coal, and the EPA.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Political scientist Stephen Voss says the ads helped bring many Kentucky Republicans who don’t think McConnell is conservative enough back under his tent.

  • STEPHEN VOSS:

    These are people who are mobilized voters, who turn out. So forced to choose, once they show up at the polls, McConnell is ideologically closer to them, far closer, than Grimes could be.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But those who want McConnell to take on President Obama may be surprised to know what he says his priority will be if Republicans do win control of the Senate.

    If the Senate changes hands, and you become majority leader, is it mainly then about overturning the policies of the Obama administration?

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

    It’s a combination of things. First of all, we need to look for potential areas of potential agreement. The president, for example, has called for trade agreements. I wish he would send them up. The president has talked about how outrageous it is that we have the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world. I agree.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That talk of compromise may appeal to wavering voters in the middle who aren’t yet sold on Grimes. Even Democratic Congressman Yarmuth says she has been hurt by waiting too long to introduce herself to those voters who were open to an alternative to McConnell.

  • REP. JOHN YARMUTH:

    She was faced with the situation of trying to establish a campaign, raise money and do all those things before she could do it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Consequently, the onslaught of McConnell’s negative TV ads have taken a toll with only hours to go before polls open on Election Day.

     

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