CAMPAIGN 2014:

Top Senate Republican walks a tightrope on budget impasse, as both right and left go on the attack

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is in a unique position to help craft a solution to the government funding impasse. As history has shown, he is not beyond cutting a deal.

After all, McConnell, the man who vowed to help make President Obama a one-term president, helped broker an eleventh-hour fiscal cliff compromise with Vice President Joe Biden over the winter holidays.

But that was before McConnell had strong opposition on both the left and the right in his bid for re-election next year. He will likely tread more carefully during the current crisis because it could significantly affect the race -- and his political future.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the leading Democrat in the Bluegrass State's Senate election, has been relentless in her attacks on McConnell in recent days, putting the government shutdown squarely on his shoulders.

"As the head of the Senate GOP, McConnell's failed leadership is the main cause of the reckless Republican government shutdown," said Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst.

Calling McConnell "Senator Gridlock," another email blast from the Grimes campaign blamed him for furloughs at Fort Knox. "McConnell's partisan rhetoric is hurting these workers, their families and Kentucky's economy," it said.

Political candidates and incumbents around the country are hoping to use the shutdown to their advantage, and national campaign committees are already on the attack (Greenwire, Oct. 1). But the Kentucky race is unique in the sense that McConnell, as part of the congressional leadership, bears more responsibility for the shutdown and greater power to help end it than rank-and-file members of Congress.

"McConnell has notably been absent from most public deliberations over the government shutdown so far," said political analyst Geoffrey Skelley. "This is probably an opportunity for Grimes to attack him for doing nothing to help avoid the situation despite his position as leader of his party in the Senate."

Skelley, a political watcher with University of Virginia Center for Politics guru Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" website, said McConnell could benefit from helping save the day.

"Of course," Skelley cautioned, "the danger for him would then be an attack on his right flank by his primary challenger, Matt Bevin, if the deal is seen as too generous to Democrats, which would almost certainly be any tea party interpretation of a deal."

While Grimes is painting McConnell as an uncompromising ideologue, businessman Bevin is chastising him for not originally backing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other conservatives who wanted to use the spending process to defund ObamaCare.

"Where was Mitch McConnell while Ted Cruz was standing and fighting?" Bevin wrote this week on the conservative website "Red State." "Well, he was sleeping. Literally. And when he wasn't sleeping, he was whipping his fellow Republicans to vote against Sen. Cruz's effort."

Liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said McConnell was showing "a lot more strength and courage than Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio], even though McConnell has a primary from the tea party."

That prompted Bevin to call McConnell "Chuck Schumer's favorite Republican."

McConnell stuck to the party line in comments on the Senate floor yesterday, saying, "Senate Democrats dragged their feet literally for days." He said, "Democrats voted again and again to reject reasonable legislation. They chose to shut down the government."

Shutdown vs. Obamacare

Conventional wisdom and recent polls suggest that the Republican leader will survive the primary. He has raised more than $13 million and appears well-armed for battle.

"I think given the resources McConnell has at his disposal -- a gigantic war chest -- he would probably be wise to at least attempt to be a part of the solution, much as he did during some of the most recent battles in Congress," Skelley said.

When it comes to the expected Grimes-McConnell fight, Sabato's "Crystal Ball" has the race leaning in favor of the Republican. The same goes for The Rothenberg Political Report. The Cook Political Report, however, has the race listed as a tossup.

And while polls have McConnell ahead of Grimes, who only recently officially entered the race, one survey conducted by Democratic firm Lake Research Partners found her leading the Republican 46 percent to 40 percent.

The survey included the opinion of 5,000 Kentucky registered voters, leading to a small, 1.4-point margin of error. But, unlike other polls, the firm conducted the survey over 10 days, between Aug. 5 and 15, an unusually long period for a political poll.

Fundraising numbers are not yet out for Grimes, but high-profile Democrats, including Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, have already started opening their wallets.

During the current shutdown fight, while Grimes would rather focus on the disarray within the GOP and distance herself from the dysfunction on Capitol Hill, the GOP is looking to tie her to Obamacare and its main backer, the president, who remains unpopular in Kentucky.

"Kentucky women, students, seniors, families, workers and businesses know that Obamacare is causing health care costs to rise, workers' hours to be cut back, and jobs to be eliminated. But Alison Lundergan Grimes doesn't seem to mind," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said in a statement.

She added, "A vote for Alison Lundergan Grimes is a de facto vote for [Nevada Democratic Senator] Harry Reid to remain Majority Leader and ObamaCare to stay forever."

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who has fought off Republican attacks by bucking his party leaders, including by strongly supporting the coal industry, recently came out in defense of Obamacare. But term limits mean he doesn't have to worry about the political fallout.

Grimes, who is looking to win in the same state that elected tea party favorite Rand Paul (R) to the Senate in 2010 -- defeating McConnell's hand-picked candidate in the Republican primary along the way -- is not only backing coal but trying to toe the line on Obamacare.

"I'm troubled with certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act," she said when pressed by WHAS-TV last month, supporting fixes rather than a full repeal. "We don't need to throw the baby out with the bath water."

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