In Kentucky, McConnell Wins Big Over Tea Party Candidate

Sen. Mitch McConnell is seeking a sixth term, and he easily beat a Tea Party challenger in Tuesday's primary. In November, he faces Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Six states held primary elections yesterday. Those votes set up several key races in the fight for Congress this fall. The biggest question was what kind of candidate Republicans would favor and this morning we have some answers.

MONTAGNE: Tea Party candidates in several states challenged more conventional Republicans. By and large the establishment Republicans, won including the most prominent man on yesterday's ballot. In Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell defeated his challenger.

We start our coverage with NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There was no suspense in yesterday's Kentucky primary. Republican Mitch McConnell fended off a well-funded Tea Party challenger. Meanwhile, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes had no real competition and has been running against McConnell since declaring her candidacy last year.

But both came out swinging last night. McConnell was first, appearing in Louisville. His speech was as much about President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate as it was his opponent.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: For five and a half years, the powers that be in Washington have treated the people in this state with contempt. And tonight I have a simple message for all of them: Those days are numbered.

GONYEA: Over and over, McConnell linked Grimes to President Obama.

MCCONNELL: My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her to be in this race. There's a reason, my friends, a reason every Hollywood liberal is sending her a check. It's not because they care about Kentucky, I assure you of that.

GONYEA: His goal: To make it so Kentucky voters can't think about Grimes without also thinking about a president who's very unpopular here.

MCCONNELL: Barack Obama's candidates preach independence but they practice loyalty above all else. And tonight I'm confident of this. Kentuckians are not going to be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama's candidate.

GONYEA: Finally, McConnell predicted that with his reelection, Republicans will also capture the Senate this year. Meaning he'd displace Harry Reid as Senate leader.

MCCONNELL: Make me the majority leader and Kentucky will lead America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: Moments later, Alison Lundergan Grimes spoke to her supporters in Lexington and immediately answered McConnell.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: Mitch McConnell would have you believe that President Obama is on Kentucky's 2014 election ballot.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIMES: We all know that Senator McConnell has been in Washington a little bit too long.

GONYEA: She then added...

GRIMES: Senator McConnell, this race is between you and me. That's the name that appears on the ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: Grimes also used her speech to distance herself from President Obama's energy policies, which Republicans like to call the war on coal - a big deal in a place like Kentucky. Last night, Grimes used the same term.

GRIMES: I don't agree with the president's war on coal. I think it's wrong for Kentucky.

GONYEA: To beat McConnell she'll have to do very well with independent voters and women. The campaign is hoping lines like this resonate.

GRIMES: Well, I'm here to tell you tonight my fellow Kentuckians, I am not an empty dress. I am not a rubber stamp and I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman who is an independent thinker, who when I am Kentucky's next United States senator, the decisions I make will be for what's best for the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not partisan interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: So on primary night, a preview of the kind of hand-to-hand, head-to-head combat that's likely to dominate the next five months. Each candidate will also have plenty of money for TV and Web advertisements. Mix in the millions that will certainly be spent by outside groups and some say it could be a $100 million Senate race in Kentucky.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Louisville.

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