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updated 7/3/2013 10:49:00 AM ET 2013-07-03T14:49:00

Alison Lundergan Grimes' senate candidacy says a lot about how Kentucky Democrats view their chances against Mitch McConnell.

The easiest way to describe Alison Lundergan Grimes, the relatively unknown Kentucky secretary of state who announced this week she will take on Mitch McConnell in what could be next year’s marquee Senate campaign, is that she is the anti-Ashley Judd.

For months earlier this year, liberals, mostly outside of Kentucky, pined for actress Ashley Judd, a Kentucky native, to run against McConnell. Moderate and conservative Democrats in Kentucky cringed, arguing the actress was far too liberal to win there. The Democrats locally eventually won out, as Judd, with strong figures in the Kentucky Democratic Party opposed to her candidacy, opted against running, allowing Grimes to enter the race without a difficult primary.

While Judd is an avowed liberal who speaks at Planned Parenthood events and has publicly praised “Obamacare,” it’s hard to find any public comment Grimes has made about the law or many other hot-button national issues. Roger Alford, The Associated Press’ correspondent in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, noted in a recent piece, “the public record shows little about Grimes’ positions on coal, guns, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and federal health care reforms.” Grimes’ most prominent move as secretary of state has been to make it easier for Kentuckians serving in the military abroad to register to vote.

Judd has lived in Tennessee the last few years, a fact McConnell was prepared to seize on. She is a well-known figure in New York and Washington political activist circles, compared to Grimes, who at 34 years old has virtually no national profile but a father steeped in Kentucky politics. Judd is an opponent of mountaintop removal coal mining, a controversial position in a state with thousands of coal jobs; executives in that industry have praised Grimes.

In a state President Obama lost by 23 points in November, the most obvious route for Mitch McConnell to victory would be to link a Democratic candidate to the president. With Judd, that would have been extremely easy; with Grimes, it is much harder. As Alford notes, in an unauthorized recording by liberal activists of a meeting earlier this year between McConnell and his operatives, the Republican’s advisers lamented that Grimes endorsed Obama for president in 2012, but “was too smart to use his name.” Grimes instead said publicly that she supported “our party and our nominee.”

In short, Grimes is likely to run the kind of campaign that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin did successfully in 2010 and 2012. One of her advisers noted the campaign will likely model that of North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp last year: a determined effort to separate from President Obama combined with an aggressive anti-Washington message. If Judd had run and loudly expressed liberal views in a red state, she would have delighted Democrats nationally but had long odds of winning. And it would have been challenging for Judd to recast herself as a political moderate because her combination of views and the perception of people from Hollywood.

Grimes will certainly make very direct moves to cast herself as distinct from Nancy Pelosi, Obama, Harry Reid and other national Democrats. And Grimes, like Manchin, who had served as West Virginia’s governor, is running in a place where Democrats do often win in state elections. Six of the seven non-federal statewide officers in Kentucky are Democrats, including Gov. Steve Beshear and Grimes, who won 61% of the vote to become secretary of state in 2011.

The move to recruit Grimes illustrates how Democrats view the race: the best way to win it is to turn it into referendum on McConnell and Washington. Kentucky, like the rest of the South, has moved decidedly to the right in federal elections: Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996 there, but Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama all lost by double digits, and the state only three years ago elected Rand Paul, perhaps the most conservative member of the Senate.

But McConnell is not at 50% of the vote in most of the polls that pit him head-to-head against Grimes, showing vulnerability, although he maintains a small lead in the surveys. (A sizable chunk of voters say they are undecided). Officials in both parties in Kentucky say there is a fatigue with the senator, first elected in 1984, and a perception that he has “gone Washington.” In a speech on June 6 to Kentucky Democrats, Grimes hinted at this theme, saying “Kentucky is tired of 28 years of obstruction.”

That frustration is not just on the left; McConnell has aggressively courted Paul activists in the state over the last few months, looking to avoid a GOP primary against a Tea Party challenger.

McConnell also had weak numbers in 2008, but won by six points, even as he was one of the principal authors of the Wall Street bailout bill only weeks before the election.

Aware of his weaknesses, the Republican and his operatives were eager to face Judd, who had the potential to lose voters who might be wary of McConnell but uncomfortable with her liberalism and some of more controversial comments. Democrats in Kentucky believe Grimes moderate record won’t lose them any votes, meaning she will be likely to get at least the businessman Bruce Lunsford earned in 2008 against McConnell.

The key question is if Grimes can actually gain any new voters. The people who urged Judd to get into the race, like U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, argued the actress had the ability to build a national fundraising base and galvanize voters in Kentucky with her fame and populist politics, breaking the conventional wisdom that only a certain kind of moderate Democrat can win in the state.

Before she agreed to run, Grimes pressed for and received assurances national Democrats would help her in fundraising, so money is not likely to be a barrier. But it’s not clear if she can create enthusiasm for her campaign separate from rallying people already frustrated with McConnell. Her politics are similar to other moderate Democrats who have lost in the South to Republicans over the last decade. After running one statewide campaign, for a relatively weak office, she is now facing one of the toughest, smartest people in politics, McConnell, in a race that will generate huge national attention.

If Grimes can’t win, Judd is likely to get her chance. According to people who have talked with her, the actress is still interested in a potential political career. Paul will run for reelection in 2016 if his long-shot GOP presidential run is unsuccessfully, and Kentucky Democrats may be more willing to take a risk on her if their latest centrist candidate fails.

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