National Democrats handing off baton in U.S. Senate race as Election Day nears

10/02/2014 01:09 PM

National Democrats are shifting gears in their support of Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bid to unseat Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee takes over this week for the Senate Majority political action committee in vilifying McConnell on the state’s airwaves.

The Senate Majority PAC has spent the most among outside groups against McConnell, reporting more than $4.3 million in independent expenditures to the Federal Election Commission since last year. But the group last filed an FEC report in Kentucky’s Senate race September 12, ramping up spending on competitive Senate races in New Hampshire, Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina since then.

But with the DSCC’s $1.4 million, two-week ad buy in Kentucky announced this week, national Democrats haven’t abandoned Grimes in her race against one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. The group has previously helped Grimes with about $500,000 in advertising.

“This is a close race; this is a margin of error race,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for DSCC. “The Grimes camp has an internal poll they released, I think, today that has them up two. There isn’t a senator in the country more unpopular than Mitch McConnell, or if there is he’s certainly number two, and we’re committed to helping to elect Alison.”

Grimes will need all the support she can get to survive the deluge of attack ads by pro-McConnell groups like the super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which has reported about $3.6 million in spending on this race to the FEC, and the 501©(4) nonprofit Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which has reported nearly $7 million in ad buys against Grimes. The conservative 501©(4) Crossroads GPS, led by Karl Rove, has reserved $1.4 million in television time this month.

Grimes, in an interview with Pure Politics Saturday, said Kentuckians are wary of “the millionaires and billionaires that Mitch McConnell has bought and paid for.”

“Over $41 million in negative, nasty ads — that’s what Mitch McConnell and his henchmen, the Koch brothers, have spent in Kentucky,” Grimes said. “This election is the difference between the Koch brothers or Kentucky, and I think Kentuckians are going to choose that they finally want a senator that puts them instead of partisan politics first.”

McConnell seems to expect a continued offensive by national Democrats as Election Day nears.

“Everybody’s free to come in and have their fair say, and there’s certainly been plenty of her allies in here beating me up for the last year and a half,” McConnell told Pure Politics Saturday.

Handing off the baton

National political observers say the Senate Majority PAC’s exit from Kentucky’s Senate race just as the DSCC makes its first independent ad buy is typical, even though the groups cannot coordinate activities.

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, said the national party’s spending should be viewed as coming from one team rather than two separate entities. Avoiding overlap in competitive Senate races is key for groups like the Senate Majority PAC and the DSCC, he said.

“They can’t legally coordinate, but they’re using public information to kind of communicate and make sure that someone is advertising on their side from now until election day, but it doesn’t have to be both of them,” Gonzales told Pure Politics in a phone interview.

“… I don’t think the Grimes campaign should be discouraged that Senate Majority PAC is pulling out, it’s just that it kind of looks like Senate Majority PAC has handed off the baton to the DSCC for a couple of weeks — maybe for the duration, but at least for the next couple of weeks.”

But Grimes may have cause for concern if the DSCC’s two-week advertising blitz proves ineffective at swaying voters to Grimes’ side and the party decides its resources can be spent in more competitive races elsewhere, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report. The DSCC has not reserved time beyond this two-week ad buy, according to a review of FCC filings by various television stations.

“I’m sort of looking at it as they’re trying to move some numbers,” she said in a phone interview. “I think that if they don’t succeed in moving those numbers that that may be it. I saw she put out a poll today that had her ahead, but unfortunately the only polls that we’ve seen in months that have her ahead are, well, hers, so this may be sort of the last hurrah, which is why the reservation question is kind of relevant and worth watching.”

Barasky, the DSCC’s spokesman, indicated the group intends to stay in Kentucky until the November 4 election.

“Mitch McConnell embodies everything that’s wrong with Washington since he’s been here for more than three decades, and he has too often been looking out for himself and not for Kentucky, and I think that’s a common theme that you’ll continue to see over the final month by us, by other Democrats and anyone who has a vested interest in finally retiring him,” Barasky said.

Taking shots to move the needle

Targeting McConnell’s image rather than boosting Grimes’ has been a common theme in messaging by the Senate Majority PAC and the DSCC’s latest ad, which accuses McConnell of ignoring Kentucky’s interests while serving his own during his 30 years in office.

Duffy said that’s unsurprising this late in the election cycle since positive ads generally take longer to affect voters’ attitudes toward a candidate.

“It takes a lot more to make a positive impression than a negative one,” she said. “There just may not be time, or there might be time, but it might cost a hell of a lot more than $1.4 million.”

Measuring the effectiveness of advertising in swaying voters is difficult, however, given the myriad other factors that come into play during an election, Gonzales said.

Still, McConnell can attribute some of his leads in recent public polling, albeit within most surveys’ margins of error, to making President Barack Obama a focal point of his reelection campaign, he said. Republican groups have followed his lead, often juxtaposing images and videos of Grimes with those of Obama.

“As a whole I think that McConnell wouldn’t have an advantage today if the Republican side hadn’t effectively included President Obama as part of the campaign debate,” Gonzales said.

Where is the NRSC?

As the DSCC enters Kentucky’s contentious Senate race, some might wonder why the National Republican Senatorial Committee hasn’t jumped to McConnell’s defense on the airwaves.

McConnell declined the group’s help in late July, instead asking it to focus its resources on other GOP Senate candidates, Roll Call reported in late July.

Duffy said she believes McConnell is comfortable with the outside spending groups backing his candidacy and would rather see the NRSC help Republicans pick up six seats in the Senate and fulfill his goal of ascending to the chamber’s majority leader.

“He knows that they’re precious,” Duffy said of the NRSC’s resources. “Democrats have a lot more money than Republicans have, so he kind of made it clear early in the cycle: Don’t worry about me. We’ll take care of it.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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