McConnell vs. Grimes: Kentucky's absolutely fascinating grudge match

We’re only two months away from the November midterms and key Senate races across the country will decide whether the Republicans regain control of both chambers.

While toss-up races in Alaska, Michigan, North Carolina and Louisiana, among others, are surely of interest, the grudge match playing out in Kentucky between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and challenger Democrat Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes deserves our attention.

Real Clear Politics currently has McConnell with a 2.5 point edge, well within the margin of error. And McConnell himself recently admitted during a local radio interview that Grimes is well within reach of his seat.


What’s more, the McConnell-Grimes race is on course to be the most expensive in history with spending set to exceed $100 million by November. Republicans are outspending Democrats largely due to hefty contributions from the Koch brothers, key McConnell supporters. But Grimes continues to hold her own.

If Grimes wins, it will almost certainly upset Republican chances to seize control of the Senate. The party currently has three seats likely to be in the Republican column and five more in play. The GOP is unlikely to succeed in November unless Republicans can win in the Bluegrass State and Georgia.

Right now, Georgia looks increasingly likely to go Republican.

This leaves Kentucky as the key state where the dynamic between an unpopular McConnell and an unpopular Barack Obama is crucial. But it's not the complete story.

Perhaps more so than in any other congressional contest this year, these two candidates represent the heart and soul – and core ideologies – of their respective parties.

There is no Tea Party candidate in the mix in this race nor is there a Democrat who hails from the extreme wing of her political party. McConnell and Grimes are both establishment thinkers, through and through.

It follows that we can look at this race as a representation of the larger battle for control of Washington. Establishment versus establishment.

McConnell has long been a thorn in the side of Democrats, squashing dreams of raising the minimum wage, promoting women’s equality and preserving crucial entitlement programs in budget negotiations. As Senate Minority Leader, McConnell has led a record number of filibusters during Obama’s six years in office, forcing more than a quarter of all cloture votes in the history of the Senate since the beginning of the Republic.

For her part, Grimes stands with the Obama administration on the central issues like health care, taxes on the wealthy and women’s issues. But while McConnell has been doing everything in his power to paint her as Obama’s candidate, Grimes has broken rank on a big issue for Kentuckians: coal.

She recently released a radio ad criticizing Obama’s EPA proposal to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

“Mr. President, Kentucky has lost one third of our coal jobs in just the last three years,” Grimes says in the radio spot. “Now, your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie in the sky regulations that are impossible to achieve.”

Further, Grimes has found herself an antidote to Republicans’ attempts to tie her to President Obama: Bill Clinton. Last month, she had Clinton campaign with her in Lexington.

"I'm not an empty dress! I'm not a cheerleader! I'm not a rubber stamp! But one label I will proudly wear is that of a Clinton Democrat," Grimes declared to more than 450 donors at a fundraiser.

We’ve seen Bill Clinton work his magic for Democratic causes and candidates for decades. His role as “explainer-in-chief” around the flawed ObamaCare rollout is rightly credited with having garnered desperately needed support for the health care law.

In this way, the argument that the Kentucky Senate race is a referendum on President Obama is only a half-truth. To be sure, Obama’s record is important, especially as McConnell continues to paint Grimes as the president's emissary, despite the fact that she has clearly and explicitly separated herself from those Obama policies which aren’t good for Kentucky.

But it follows that any assessment of the Kentucky race – which will surely go down to the wire – that only focuses on Grimes as an Obama policy clone misses the point.

This race is about much more than candidates. It's a battle between America’s two major political parties and the ideology that matters most to them.

It’s what makes this race so fascinating. It is also missing the influence of political extremism – on both sides -- that has been led to so much destruction in Washington.

A race without ideological extremism is a rarity in today's political scene. When the results are in from the Kentucky senate race we will know which party's establishment is the real winner.