- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s clean sweep in the November election, winning a sixth term and landing his dream job as Senate majority leader on the strength of big Republican gains nationally, has been voted Kentucky’s top news story for 2014.

When Senate control shifts to the GOP at the start of 2015, McConnell will become the first Kentuckian to lead the chamber since Democrat Alben Barkley pushed for President Franklin Roosevelt’s agenda.

McConnell, looking to make his own mark as Senate leader, promised to set a different course after years of Democratic control.

“It won’t surprise you to know that I have a very different view of America than outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid,” McConnell told a Kentucky Farm Bureau audience after the November election.

“And so we will be debating and voting on things that are dramatically different from what has been the case the last few years.”

McConnell started 2014 as a prime target for national Democrats hoping to dislodge a chief antagonist. Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic challenger, portrayed him as an out-of-touch Washington insider.

But McConnell lived up to his reputation as a shrewd strategist. He emphasized his seniority as an advantage for Kentucky and turned President Barack Obama into his foil. McConnell and his allies repeatedly linked Grimes to the unpopular president.

McConnell defeated Grimes by 15 percentage points in a race that attracted nearly $80 million in spending in the two years leading up to the election, mostly on attack ads bankrolled mostly by out-of-state interests.

Looking ahead, McConnell said he would do all he could to stop Obama’s coal-plant regulations, saying overreaching environmental regulators are “strangling our economy.” McConnell offered hope of reaching agreement with Obama on tax reform, trade and infrastructure spending.

McConnell’s political triumphs were selected as the year’s biggest story in Kentucky in voting by subscribers and staff for The Associated Press.

Kentucky’s No. 2 story was the car-swallowing sinkhole that opened in February at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green.

The sight of eight crumpled cars toppled like toys in the gaping pit turned into an Internet sensation.

The 60-foot-long, 45-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep hole opened when the museum was closed, and no one was injured. The attention spiked attendance, and the museum cashed in by selling sinkhole-themed merchandise.

Work began late in the year to plug the hole, a project expected to take about eight months at a cost of $3.2 million.

Two evolving developments tied for the state’s No. 3 story - the enrollment of Kentuckians for health insurance through the state’s marketplace and the legal battle over same-sex marriage.

More than 521,000 Kentuckians enrolled for health care coverage through the state’s kynect website in its first few months of operation, Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration said.

Kentucky’s enrollment performance was held up as a national model, and it earned Beshear a White House invitation to attend Obama’s State of the Union speech last January.

Meanwhile, Kentucky found itself in the thick of the same-sex marriage debate when U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II ruled in February that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Beshear hired outside lawyers to appeal the ruling after the state’s attorney general, Jack Conway, announced he would not pursue the case.

Late in the year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld anti-gay marriage laws in Kentucky and three other states. Same-sex couples seeking the right to marry asked the Supreme Court to settle the issue nationwide.

The next story on the list was U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s continued emergence as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Paul found himself among a pack of prominent Republicans weighing possible presidential bids as the GOP ramps up efforts to retake the White House.

Other top 10 stories included:

-A horrific house fire that killed a mother and eight of her children in western Kentucky.

-The planting of the state’s first legal hemp crop in decades on test plots for research and development.

-Kentucky’s quest for a ninth national basketball championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the title game.

-Democrats held on to control of the Kentucky House, fending off a push by Republicans looking to seize power.

Two stories finished in a tie in balloting. One was the deployment of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to West Africa to help build care centers as part of the U.S. military mission to stop the spread of Ebola. The other story was an “ice bucket challenge” that turned tragic when a central Kentucky firefighter was fatally injured when a power line shocked him and another man.

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