LOUISVILLE - Alison Lundergan Grimes is the third, and tallest, of her parents' five daughters - giving her what she says is the perfect background to replace Mitch McConnell as Kentucky's next senator.
"I'm used to operating from the center," she said.
With Republicans rapidly gaining ground in Kentucky, where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular, Grimes has worked hard to portray herself as independent from the national Democrats that many love to hate.
However, McConnell has not run to the right in what is becoming the toughest re-election campaign of his career. Instead, he has been touting his centrist qualities in a state still dominated by Democrats at the state and local level.
Speaking at a recent Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce event, McConnell blamed the deadlock in Congress on Obama "not moving to the political center." And in a recent forum with Grimes at the Kentucky Farm Bureau, McConnell presented himself as a bipartisan dealmaker rather than an all-or-nothing politician.
"The only deals that have been made on a bipartisan basis during the Obama years, I brokered. Every one of them," McConnell said.
Those tactics are a byproduct of Kentucky's status as one of the last truly bipartisan states. While most states are dominated by one political party, Kentucky's House is controlled by Democrats, its Senate controlled by Republicans. Democrats have a substantial lead in registered voters. But Republicans have been gaining, registering 142,312 new voters since 2008. Democrats have added 10,571 new voters in the same time period.
Grimes and McConnell are locked in one of the most-watched Senate races in the country, given Republican efforts to take control of the Senate and McConnell's status as minority leader. Both candidates so far have been portraying the other to the extreme: Grimes as a rubber stamp for Obama's policies and McConnell as an obstructionist.
McConnell pointed to the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and the budget control act of 2011 that averted a default on the nation's debts as examples of his skill at brokering deals that benefit the country. But McConnell has said if he becomes majority leader he would confront Obama, using the spending process to cut through the bureaucracy.
"The most effective way to get the attention of any president is to cut off their money for their favored items," McConnell told the group in Bowling Green. "He can veto the bill. And he may. But we're going to make him make choices."
Grimes has characterized McConnell's comments as a threat to shut down the government. She attacked McConnell for his recent comments to a group of wealthy donors, which was recorded secretly and released by The Nation, in which McConnell vowed the Senate would not vote on raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits if he becomes majority leader.
"The gridlock that Mitch McConnell champions, the mess that's in Washington, D.C., right now as a result of Mitch McConnell, well it's why President Barack Obama is wrongly ruling by executive order," Grimes said at the Farm Bureau forum.
McConnell points to Grimes' fundraisers with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have supported new EPA emission standards that McConnell has branded part of Obama's "war on coal." And if Grimes opposes McConnell's strategy for blocking Obama's agenda, then the McConnell campaign said she must oppose McConnell's attempts to block the emission standards that would lead to the eventual shutdown of Kentucky's coal-fired power plants.
"Previously, Alison Grimes reserved this kind of candor for Harry Reid and Obama liberals at fundraisers so it's refreshing that she now feels free to criticize Sen. McConnell for standing up for Kentucky jobs," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a recent news release.
A spokeswoman for Grimes said the EPA regulations must change, but "shutting down the government is the wrong way to do it."
Grimes' strategy to portray McConnell as a Republican extremist could work in Kentucky, said University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss.
"The Republican Party has shifted right so far that they have opened up some ground in the middle for a new breed of Democrat who would look suspiciously like the old Southern Democrats of a generation ago," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky who has been monitoring the Senate race. "She entered this race with enough of a clean slate that she gets to write what kind of Democratic candidate she wants to be."
But McConnell has not shifted to the right as much as some may think, said University of Georgia political scientist Keith Poole, who has analyzed every congressional roll call vote in the country's history.
"(McConnell) his slowly tracked a little bit to the right, but on the whole he's about in the middle," Poole said. The caucus' shift could account for McConnell's slight shift, given that he is the leader, Poole said.
Poole said Grimes' efforts to promote herself as a moderate would work if not for Reid. He said Democrats like Grimes "can campaign all they want on curbing the EPA and getting the XL pipeline built, but they can't ever get a vote on it on the floor."
"It's not going to work for her because she doesn't have a comeback to the effect that Harry Reid is the majority leader and is blocking all of the public policies that would allow her to help the Kentucky coal industry," he said.
Grimes has not said who she will vote for as majority leader should she win the election. But she has promised "that I will work with anyone that puts the best interests of Kentucky first."
"Mitch McConnell wants to run this race against anyone but me. He'll try to connect me to every national figure that is out there that disagrees with Kentucky's interests," she said. "You seek to attack our good agriculture jobs, our coal jobs, and you will find no stronger opponent."
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