Allison Lundergan Grimes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Harrodsburg, Ky.
Allison Lundergan Grimes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Harrodsburg, Ky.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Super PACs, political action committees that can collect unlimited funds, are playing a significant role in making the Kentucky race for U.S. Senate between Sen. Mitch McConnell and State Secretary Allison Lundergan Grimes the most expensive Senate faceoff in American history.

The campaigns of McConnell, the Senate minority leader who is seeking a fifth term, and Grimes are expected to cost a total of $100 million, predicts the Washington Post.

McConnell has raised more money than Grimes, but both have relied on out-of-state donors, reports the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending. Eighty-one percent of the contributions to McConnell’s campaign and 72 percent of those to Grimes’ came from donors outside of Kentucky.

With five weeks to go until Election Day, corporations, unions and wealthy individuals have used super PACs to spend more than $16.6 million on this race, mainly in hard-hitting and negative broadcast ads.

In the case of Grimes, attack ads are playing up her party affiliation with President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Kentucky, a GOP stronghold.

Meanwhile, McConnell is getting blamed for Kentucky’s sagging economy.

Super PACs on both sides of the partisan aisle are focusing on the race because it is one of the 10 most competitive Senate contests. Polls show that only 36 percent of Kentucky voters believe that McConnell, Kentucky’s longest serving senator, has done a good job.

For the Republicans, a net gain of six seats and McConnell’s reelection would put them in Senate majority and in a position to determine the legislative agenda for the last two years of the Obama administration.

A long-time foe of campaign fundraising limits, McConnell is expected to become Senate majority leader if he gets reelected and the Republicans gain control of the Senate in November.

Grimes Taps Middle Class Concerns

Thirty-five-year-old Grimes–the youngest secretary of state in the nation–has charged that 72-year-old McConnell is a Washington insider who has ignored the concerns of middle-class Kentuckians, especially women, who are 53 percent of the state’s 3.1 million registered voters.

"If Mitch McConnell were a TV show he would be ‘Mad Men,’ treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending the season," said Grimes at a campaign stop in early August.

In a state that in 2013 ranked sixth in the nation in the rate of poverty, Grimes criticized McConnell for voting against raising the federal minimum wage 15 times during his four terms. Census Bureau data show that almost 19 percent of residents had an annual income of less than $23,830 for a family of four and $11,890 for an individual. Nationally, the poverty rate was almost 15 percent.

To encourage turnout by women and low-income voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats, Grimes also denounced McConnell for voting against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and leading the GOP opposition in 2013 to passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

A woman in Kentucky who worked full time earned $32,684 in 2013, compared to $41,612 for a man, reports the Washington-based National Partnership of Women and Families. The nonprofit group, which promotes fairness in the workplace, estimates that if the wage gap between men and women in Kentucky were eliminated, women would have enough money for 78 more weeks of food.

McConnell responded by denouncing Grimes as "the new face of Barack Obama who is responsible for women losing ground with declining wages and increased numbers of women in poverty."

Firestorm of Broadcast Ads

The exchange of political insults in August ignited a firestorm of broadcast ads by super PACs. The week after Labor Day, more than 2,200 TV ads touting McConnell–one ad every five minutes–aired, according to the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism group. Its analysis found twice as many ads for McConnell as Grimes.

Bill Addison is editorial director of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports accountability and transparency in government.

Addison traces McConnell’s ad advantage to the 2010 landmark Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which increased the campaign advantages of incumbents.

"Now corporations, trade associations, unions and wealthy entrepreneurs can give unlimited funds to legislators who serve on key committees or hold leadership positions in Congress," he said in a phone interview.

In 2013-2014, McConnell was the No. 1 recipient of campaign contributions by 25 industries, notes the Center for Responsive Politics. The center reported that the industries included mining, a major employer in Kentucky, as well as finance, health services, pharmaceuticals and restaurants.

Super PACs that support McConnell have linked Grimes with Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the blue grass state. Obama won only four of Kentucky’s 120 counties in the 2012 presidential race.

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super PAC founded by McConnell’s former campaign aide Scott Jennings, launched a $270,000 TV ad campaign in mid-July claiming that Grimes was "a rubber stamp for Obama." The group also distributed T-shirts with a photo of Grimes, Obama and Democratic Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid of Nevada that proclaimed "I’m with stupid."

Senate Majority PAC Steps Up

Senate Majority PAC, which was founded by one of Reid’s former aides to increase Democrats in the upper chamber, retaliated in late July with a $500,000 TV ad campaign attacking McConnell for "failing to stand up for residents of Kentucky."

Grimes has distanced herself from key parts of Obama’s legislative agenda, such as a proposal to require background checks on all gun sales and bans on military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

She has also opposed Obama’s proposal to require power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent–compared to 2005–by 2030 because Kentucky is a major coal-producing state. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s emissions, Environmental Protection Agency data show.

To highlight this opposition, a 30-second ad showing Grimes skeet shooting began running Sept. 15 throughout the state. "I’m not Barack Obama," she said. "I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA."

Allison Moore, McConnell’s spokesperson, responded at a press conference. "Much of Allison Grimes’ financial support comes from those seeking to enact gun control and wage the war on coal but cynically she believed that a recycled TV idea will fool Kentuckians. It won’t."

In 2010, Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia ran a TV ad showing him using a hunting rifle to blast a hole in a copy of Obama’s "cap and trade" climate proposal, which was unpopular in his coal-producing state.

This summer, the National Rifle Association, endorsed McConnell, who also opposes the EPA restrictions.

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