When Jim Cauley returned to Pikeville, Ky., this month for his 30th high school reunion, he heard familiar complaints from old classmates.
“I can’t believe you did that to us,” Cauley said. “That’s their favorite line.”
Though a native of the Eastern Kentucky mountain town, Cauley is still vilified by many in the state for a job he took in 2004: managing Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois.
A decade later, anger and disdain for Obama in Kentucky are at a fever pitch, and they are at the core of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s increasingly confident re-election campaign.
With roughly five weeks to go until Election Day, McConnell is establishing a small but steady lead over his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who at age 35 is running only her second political race.
Cauley and other Kentucky Democratic strategists in recent days warned that unless Grimes dramatically alters her strategy, she is in danger of going down in defeat. That would not only give McConnell a sixth term, but do it in one of the few Senate races where the Republicans might once have been vulnerable. That would make it more likely the Republicans could gain the net six seats in other state they need to seize control of the Senate, and to help McConnell reach his ultimate career goal of becoming Senate majority leader.
It’s not that McConnell is that popular. Only 36 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of him in a recent Bluegrass Poll.
But Obama is disliked even more – just 29 percent viewed him favorably in the same poll. And McConnell appears to have successfully convinced many Kentucky voters, especially those in coal-producing regions, that Grimes would be a rubber stamp for the president.
Well into this year, outside political analysts viewed Grimes as a lethal threat to McConnell’s future. They pointed to McConnell’s high negative numbers, a primary challenge from within his own party and the enthusiasm of Democrats who have long loathed the senator.
During that period, Grimes kept her focus on fundraising as she tried to catch up to McConnell’s huge advantage.
By largely forfeiting the opportunity to introduce herself at a time when McConnell was distracted by his own primary challenge, Grimes allowed Republicans to define her in the eyes of voters who were already contemptuous of Obama, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
“Many voters reported being uncertain or neutral about Grimes going into the general election, and that meant she would need to try to define herself as a Kentucky Democrat while competing with McConnell’s contrary message that she will become a stooge for President Obama,” Voss said.
At the same time, McConnell’s campaign worked to define Grimes as an Obama ally. McConnell pointed to a massive decline in coal jobs, which Republicans argue is the result of Obama’s “war on coal,” and strived to link Grimes to it.
Kentucky is particularly sensitive to the pressures on coal mining, as 21 coal mines were idled in the state during the first half of this year, fully a third of all the coal mines nationwide to be shuttered. Several forces contributed, such as lower costs for natural gas and rising imports of lower-cost coal from outside the United States. But new environmental rules announced this summer by the Obama administration have added to the forces against Eastern Kentucky coal and stoked the belief that Obama is deliberately hurting the coal industry.
“It’s so widely known in Kentucky that this administration . . . has put a bull’s eye on the coal industry, particularly in the eastern part of the state,” said Mike Duncan, a Kentucky banker and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. McConnell, he said, has “done a good job of connecting the dots.”
Grimes has tried to position herself as a pro-coal Democrat. Maybe the best example is the ad she ran this month in which she’s shooting skeet and says, “I’m not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA.”
The first signs that the McConnell approach was working came on the night of the May 20 primary.
McConnell won his primary easily. Grimes also sailed to the Democratic nomination, but she lost almost a quarter of registered Democrats to one of her unknown, unfunded opponents in what appeared to be protest votes in the state’s closed primary. The worst margins for Grimes, predictably, came from coal-producing counties.
“She had a wasted opportunity during that period of time, and Sen. McConnell and his allies have been able to define her,” Duncan said.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., defended the Grimes campaign’s early strategy. “She had to do what she was doing at the time,” he said. “She had to put together the organization, and she had to raise money.”
But after the primary, the polls began to shift in McConnell’s favor. For weeks, the race seemed to focus almost entirely on coal, as Grimes’ central message of economic populism – raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and reducing student loan debt – failed to gain much traction beyond her reliable Democratic base.
Meanwhile, Republicans who had supported McConnell’s primary challenger began returning to McConnell’s tent, even as polls showed one in four Democrats choosing McConnell over Grimes.
“McConnell was not as weak as he looked because those conservatives disparaging him nonetheless are the sort who turn out to vote, and once they’re forced to choose between a Republican and a Democrat, they’ll side with the GOP most of the time,” Voss said.
Heading into the fall, Republicans who not long ago were concerned about McConnell’s chances are starting to feel more comfortable.
“A year ago, I was concerned about the race,” said Duncan. “Six months ago, I thought some movement had been made. In the last few weeks, it’s clear to me that Kentuckians have been coming home to Sen. McConnell.”
But Yarmuth warned that McConnell is still below 50 percent in most polls, and he thinks Grimes is in the process of winning over Kentuckians who want to vote against McConnell but haven’t been completely sold on Grimes as an alternative.
In recent days, Grimes released television and newspaper ads emphasizing her plan to raise the minimum wage, equal pay for women and job training for veterans.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more of that kind of approach, so that people who don’t want to vote for Mitch have a better understanding of who she is and what she wants to do,” Yarmuth said. “I think that’s her challenge over the next month.”
The race, Yarmuth said, is far from over.
“I know their campaign is not discouraged, and I’m not discouraged for them,” he said.