If you are an incumbent elected official and you are facing re-election, with dismal looking poll numbers and a potentially difficult challenger looming on the horizon, there is one thing you are likely to do.
Knock that challenger down a notch or two before he or she even gets in the race.
This is the situation where Kentucky’s senior senator, Republican Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, finds himself.
And he and his allies in the Republican Party of Kentucky (RPK) are throwing punches, aimed directly at Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat considered by many to be the most potent challenger to McConnell when he runs for re-election in 2014.
Grimes has yet to say whether she will run. But McConnell’s allies in the Kentucky GOP have launched a pre-emptive strike on the Maysville Democrat, trying to tie her to Progress Kentucky, a liberal group that has had some embarrassing incidents recently that have most of the Democratic party leadership in Kentucky running as far away from Progress Kentucky as they can get.
First there was a Progress Kentucky tweet about McConnell and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, that was widely seen as racist. Then there was the question of whether Progress Kentucky was directly involved in the secret, and possibly illegal, recording of McConnell and his campaign staff discussing how they would go after actress Ashley Judd, who has since decided not to run against McConnell. The tape surfaced on the liberal Mother Jones website.
On Tuesday, the RPK put out a news release pointing out that it had been 68 days since Progress Kentucky “began its smear campaign” against McConnell with “an incredibly distasteful and racist tweet.”
“In fact,’’ the press release went on, “today also marks the 68th day in a row that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has kept silent on the matter.”
The next day, the RPK put out a release with a photo of Grimes with Shawn Reilly, the executive director of Progress Kentucky; and again slammed her for not speaking out against the group.
All of this is intended to take a bite out of a relatively new politician who is in her first term as secretary of state and who may or may not be preparing to take a big leap onto the national stage. And taking on the Senate minority leader would put her in the national spotlight.
There is reason to believe that McConnell is vulnerable.
Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina polling firm, released a Kentucky poll earlier this month showing McConnell’s job approval rating at 36 percent. President Obama’s job approval rating among Kentucky voters is at 35 percent; and he lost the Bluegrass State to Mitt Romney by 23 percentage points last fall.
In a head-to-head match-up, McConnell lead Grimes by only four percentage points – 45 percent to 41 percent.
Hence, the attacks on Grimes – even though she hasn’t yet committed to the race.
Paul Whalen, the Campbell County Democratic Party chairman, said he is convinced she will run and thinks the Progress Kentucky issue will blow over eventually.
“I don’t think this is going to impact people,’’ Whalen said. “Secretary Grimes has too many personal connections to the grassroots in Kentucky. Far more than Mitch McConnell.”
Rick Robinson, a Republican strategist and former aide to Jim Bunning when he was in the U.S. House, said Democrats are barking up the wrong tree if they think that McConnell, because of his leadership position, has lost touch with the grassroots.
“One thing that happens in a leadership position is that your interests have to go beyond your home state,’’ Robinson said.
But, Robinson said, McConnell has “has a good grasp of what’s important to Kentucky. He is not an absentee senator.”
If he is vulnerable, Robinson said, “it is because of the political climate we are in now. Every incumbent is vulnerable.”
Whalen said the attacks on Grimes are coming because McConnell is desperate.
“Let him spend his money,’’ Whalen said. “It won’t work.”
But the one thing Democrats should never do, Robinson said, is underestimate McConnell as a campaigner.
“He has a philosophy,’’ Robinson said. “It’s ‘if you throw a pebble at me, I will throw a boulder at you.’’’