A few months ago, the race for the U.S. Senate was not only considered one of the Democratic Party's best opportunities in the nation to pick up a Republican-held seat but also to take out one of the GOP politicians Democrats most loathe: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But in recent weeks, there is evidence that McConnell, 72, is on the upswing and headed toward re-election against Democratic opponent and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
A just-completed Bluegrass Poll — conducted for WKYT-TV, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and WHAS-TV — showed the five-term senator leading Grimes by a margin of 47 percent to 45 percent among likely voters statewide, with 2 percent going to Libertarian David Patterson.
The Bluegrass Poll presented a contrast to many recent surveys, which showed Grimes, 35, either tied with or leading the senator. Immediately after the primaries in May, a SurveyUSA poll gave Grimes a lead of 43 percent to 42 percent over McConnell.
"And the primary Mitch went through [against Louisville businessman and tea party favorite Matt Bevin] clearly had a lot to with it," former Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan, an activist in Bluegrass State GOP campaigns for nearly half-a-century, told Newsmax.
Recalling how McConnell rolled up more than 60 percent of the vote in the primary, Duncan said "to win the primary, Mitch McConnell had to get his organization revved up and working hard. The primary made the McConnell team the things it needed to be doing. And now he's well-positioned for the fall campaign."
As to whether there were any scars left unhealed from Bevin's spirited challenge, Duncan replied without hesitation: "No. The Republicans are coming home."
Duncan and other GOP activists in Kentucky believe that even before the Obama administration was unpopular in "coal country" even before it issued its controversial new standards for government regulation of carbon emissions. What many Kentuckians refer to as the "war on coal" by the Obama administration in terms of regulations already on the books is costing the state's coal industry dearly.
"In the Eastern part of Kentucky, it's Depression-like," said Duncan, "Several thousands of jobs have been lost."
Grimes almost never mentions Obama. Instead, she invokes the name and image of the last Democratic president, who was in Hazard, Kentucky, to stump for her this week. Bill Clinton carried the state's electoral votes and Grimes' father was his state campaign manager in 1992 and 1996. The Lundergans and Clintons remain good friends.
But Team McConnell regularly reminds voters that Grimes was a delegate to one of the Democratic National Conventions in that twice nominated Obama for president. Moreover, they say she has come close to endorsing Obamacare, saying "we need to find common-sense solutions in moving forward with the implementation."
Grimes has also been the beneficiary of a Washington D.C.-based fund-raising breakfast hosted by another figure considered an enemy by the coal community, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
In a race that has always been tight and is sure to grow more incendiary by November, there is always the possibility the tide could turn against the veteran incumbent. For now, however, Mitch McConnell and his team are, in Ronald Reagan's words, "cautiously optimistic."
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