Alison Lundergan Grimes will challenge Mitch McConnell

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said Monday she will seek to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell next year, ending the long search by Democrats to find a competitive challenger to the five-term Republican.

Grimes, who had been touted as the Democrats' best hope of unseating McConnell, began seriously considering the race after actress Ashley Judd opted out in March.

The 34-year-old Grimes launched her bid with stinging criticism of the 71-year-old McConnell, the longest-serving U.S. senator in Kentucky 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, meanwhile, released a statement saying he looks forward to "a respectful exchange of ideas" with Grimes, whom he described 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."

A lawyer whose father once headed the state Democratic party, Grimes, a lawyer, was first elected in 2011, when she won 61 percent of the vote. Former Democratic Party Chairman Bill Garmer and Kentucky environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald had also eyed the race on the Democratic side, had both had said they would run only if Grimes didn't.

Three longshot Democrats already have declared their intentions to run.

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 attack is 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 his runs for president.

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. McConnell has already raised some $13 million for his re-election campaign and is known for running bare-knuckled campaigns.

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 didn't simply jump into the race.

"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."