By TRIP GABRIEL
Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, announced on Monday that she would take on Senator Mitch McConnell in what is likely to be one of the most costly, high-profile and sharp-elbowed races of 2014.
Ms. Grimes, who has only held public office since January 2012, stepped forward after a very public and at times anguished effort by Democratic Party officials to recruit a willing and worthy opponent to Mr. McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, in a conservative state where President Obama is deeply unpopular.
“I’m no stranger to being an underdog,” Ms. Grimes, 34, said at an afternoon news conference in Frankfort, denying that she felt intimidated by mocking advertisements that Mr. McConnell and his supporters mounted pre-emptively against her last week. “His ads are based out of fear of losing his 30-year grip on power, and this Kentucky woman does not believe the voters of Kentucky will be fooled that easily.”
Democrats believe Ms. Grimes will be less easily associated with Mr. Obama than other candidates might have been. One of the party leaders who urged her to consider a run was Bill Clinton, a friend of her father, Jerry Lundergan, who was once the state’s Democratic chairman and was the caterer for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Even before Ms. Grimes made her announcement, Republicans previewed what they consider a major vulnerability by linking her to the president’s climate initiative, announced last week, which targets coal-burning power plants.
“This extreme agenda will destroy jobs in Kentucky,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee wrote in a blog post. “Grimes’ silence makes clear that Kentuckians simply can’t count on her to stand up against her own party to protect them.”
But Ms. Grimes may be less vulnerable than other Democrats in Appalachia to accusations of waging a “war on coal.” In her 2011 election for secretary of state, she was endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America and received donations from top coal executives.
She also ran against a proposal advanced by her Republican rival that required voters to show photo identification.
Despite Mr. McConnell’s prestige and seniority in the Senate, some early polling has shown him to be vulnerable as he seeks a sixth term. But the prospect of taking on his war chest of $12 million and climbing, and of dueling with his take-no-prisoners style, discouraged challengers.
Representative John Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in Kentucky’s Congressional delegation, demurred that he was too old. The actress Ashley Judd dropped out in March after she faced withering attacks linking her to Mr. Obama; in a secret recording, aides to Mr. McConnell spoke of using Ms. Judd’s personal life against her.
On the same tape, made by a Democratic activist outside a closed meeting at Mr. McConnell’s headquarters in Louisville, the senator’s aides seemed to have far less opposition research on Ms. Grimes. They identified as weaknesses that she endorsed the 2008 Democratic platform and that she appeared to be “egotistical,” because she spoke of herself in the third person.
Last week, the McConnell campaign released a Web advertisement that parodied messages on Ms. Grimes’s phone from Democrats, including Ms. Judd, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, desperately urging her to run. Mr. Obama’s “message” concludes, “Call me… maybe.”
A pro-McConnell “super PAC” announced it was spending $260,000 on a television ad predicting that Ms. Grimes would be a “rubber stamp” for the president and calling her “Obama’s cheerleader in Kentucky” on issues like the health care overhaul.
“I’m excited that Alison has decided to make the race,” Mr. Yarmuth said in a statement. “She will be a formidable candidate and a great contrast to Senator McConnell. If she is our party’s nominee, she will have no more enthusiastic supporter and tireless campaigner than me.”