FRANKFORT, Ky. - 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 could 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.
When he announced his candidacy last summer, 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 just two 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. Bevin has said repeatedly that McConnell would lose the general election because the Kentucky Republican party is divided. And he refused to sign a pledge to support the McConnell in November if the senator won.
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.
"We will welcome those who vote against Sen. McConnell and his own party on Tuesday to join our campaign," Grimes senior campaign adviser Jonathan Hurst told The Associated Press. "There will be a lot of supporters who look at Allison, and they may not agree with her on every issue, but they will see they have a lot more in common with her than they do Sen. McConnell."
But senior McConnell campaign adviser Josh Holmes said Kentucky Republicans have a history of rallying around their nominee. Holmes pointed to a 2010 poll that said 43 percent of GOP voters would not vote for Rand Paul after the Republican primary. But exit polling on election day found 91 percent of Republican voters voted for Paul.
"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."