LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes ran victory laps Tuesday in Kentucky as they rallied their party faithful to nominate them for a colossal showdown in November that will help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Grimes, Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State, rolled to victory over nominal primary opposition. And McConnell easily defeated tea party-backed challenger Matt Bevin, who spent $3.3 million in his failed bid to oust the five-term Republican Senate leader.
But it was another politician who stole the spotlight Tuesday night: Democratic President Barack Obama. In their victory speeches, McConnell and Grimes both invoked the name of the two-term president who has the disapproval of more than 60 percent of Kentucky voters.
“Barack Obama’s candidates preach independence but they practice loyalty above all else,” McConnell said. “Kentuckians are not going to be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama’s candidate. And they’ll issue the same verdict on this candidate that they did twice before.”
In Lexington, Grimes told supporters she won’t answer to the president - “whoever he or she may be.” She added that “no Kentucky woman will sit on the back bench,” a reference to McConnell’s argument that it would be bad for Kentucky to lose his position of seniority in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell will have you believe that President Obama is on Kentucky’s 2014 election ballot,” Grimes said. “Sen. McConnell, this race is between you and me.”
Bevin appeared poised to give McConnell the run for his life. The military veteran with nine children had hoped to capture the same spirit that catapulted tea party favorite Rand Paul into the Senate nearly four years ago. But despite the financial backing of outside conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, Bevin’s campaign never gained traction against McConnell. The longtime senator used high-profile endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association to tout his conservative bona fides.
Bevin characterized himself as the true conservative in the race, hitting McConnell hard for his repeated votes to increase the country’s debt and his vote to approve the 2008 Wall Street bailout. But his campaign stumbled early when a document surfaced from Bevin’s investment company calling the bailout a “positive development.” And Bevin was caught on tape telling a crowd at a pro-cockfighting rally that he thought it was wrong to make cockfighting illegal.
With recent polls showing a razor-thin race between McConnell and Grimes, the question now is whether Bevin supporters will vote for McConnell in November. After months of attacking Bevin in negative ads, McConnell asked his supporters to give Bevin a round of applause Tuesday night in Louisville.
“Matt brought a lot of passion and tenacity to this race, and he made me a stronger candidate,” McConnell said. “A tough race is behind us and it’s time to unite. To my opponent’s supporters, I hope you’ll join me in the months ahead and know that your fight is my fight.”
Bevin did not endorse McConnell on Tuesday. But he said he would not support Grimes in November, saying Democrats have “zero chance” of solving the nation’s problems.
“The only chance for our nation … is the solutions must come from within the Republican Party,” he said.
Grimes has been portraying herself as an “independent Kentucky woman” at recent campaign stops in what could be an attempt to woo scorned GOP primary voters. Many Republicans may not agree with Grimes on every issue, “but they will see they have a lot more in common with her than they do Sen. McConnell,” Grimes’ senior campaign adviser Jonathan Hurst told The Associated Press before the polls closed Tuesday.
But senior McConnell campaign adviser Josh Holmes said Kentucky Republicans have a history of rallying around their nominee. Holmes pointed to 2010, when Rand Paul rallied voters despite alienating some of the party’s base in the primary.
“Bruising primaries are hardly something new,” Holmes said. “No question we still have some work to do after the primary is over. But we feel ultimately folks are going to come home and will see sort of a unification of that vote behind Sen. McConnell.”
Beam reported from Lexington and Union. Associated Press writer Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report from Louisville.
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