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Why Kentucky Senate Contest Remains a True Horse Race

In the most closely-watched Senate race in the nation this year, neither Mitch McConnell nor Alison Lundergan Grimes, can pull away.

PADUCAH, Ky. - In the most closely-watched U.S. Senate race in the nation this year, neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell nor his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, can pull away.

As the two prepare to take the stage on Saturday at Fancy Farm, the iconic annual church picnic where Kentucky’s politicians often speak over loud boos from their opponents, polls show the two effectively tied, with Grimes within a few points of a huge upset that would likely ensure Democrats kept control of the U.S. Senate.

“You can feel the uncertainty on both sides,” said Colmon Elridge, who is a top aide to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat.

Here’s why the race remains so close:

1.Kentucky is not as Republican as its reputation

The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate or presidential race in Kentucky was Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2010, Kentucky resoundingly elected Rand Paul, now one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Two years later, President Obama won only 4 of the state’s 120 counties. Five of the state’s six members of Congress are from the GOP.

Those fundamental dynamics suggest that no matter what the polls say now, Grimes is the underdog, as Democrats here privately acknowledge. The majority of voters here consistently back Republicans in federal elections.

But those numbers paint a state that is not as Republican upon closer reflection. In 2008, McConnell’s Democratic opponent won 48 percent of the vote. In 2010, while Paul won, Democrats retained control of the state House of Representatives, and they kept control of the state House in 2012 in the midst of Mitt Romney’s rout as the top of the ticket.

A majority of the 120 counties have elected a Democrat to a four-year term as their county executive. In 2011, Democrats won five of the six statewide elected offices, some by huge margins. Beshear carried 92 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in his re-election campaign, Grimes 89 to be elected secretary of state.

“At the heart of it, Kentucky is very much a Democratic state,” Grimes said in an interview on her campaign bus on Thursday. “Democrats outnumber Republicans in terms of registration.”

But she added, “When it comes to federal elections, Mitch McConnell has always tried to make the argument (about) a national Democrat that can’t relate to Kentucky.”

that may sound like spin, but it reflects a core belief not only in Grimes inner circle but one shared by other Democrats in Kentucky. Party operatives in Kentucky talk excitedly about the prospect of Hillary Clinton running in 2016 and winning this state, which Obama effectively conceded in both of his campaigns.

Their view is that Kentucky is in the South, but doesn’t necessarily vote like other parts of the region. In states like Georgia, the vote is polarized along demographic lines, with Democrats heavily reliant on winning black voters and white urbanites, while Republicans dominate among rural voters.

On the other hand, Kentucky has a tiny minority population, as just 8 percent of the electorate is black and 3 percent Hispanic. But white and rural voters here are more likely to back Democrats.

Mind you, a certain kind of Democrat. Democrats here say the president’s race is a challenge for some voters. But the bigger issue for Democrats in national races is that Kentucky voters lean conservative on issues like abortion and gun control even if they liberal are on economic issues, such as increasing the minimum wage.

“I don’t believe in abortions,” said Jack B. McCaslin, a Democrat and the county executive in Hancock County in Western Kentucky. He is backing Grimes and introduced her when she came to the county on Wednesday afternoon.

He added, “people here don’t want to lose their guns” in explaining the unpopularity of other Democrats.

Grimes is pro-choice, but her voting record on many cultural issues is non-existent, since she has never held a legislative seat.

2.Both candidates have partly addressed their chief vulnerability

For Grimes, unpopularity of Obama and the national Democratic Party here remain deep challenges. But polls suggest she will almost certainly outperform the president, who won just 38 percent of the vote here in 2012.

She is trying to downplay the national implications of the race,

“This election is not about party control,” Grimes tells voters here. (In fact, it most certainly is, as this seat will play a key role in determining if Democrats win control of the Senate.) “It’s about the person, not the party,” she says. (In fact, as McConnell says, the first and perhaps most important vote Grimes would cast as a senator is the one that would keep Harry Reid in place as Majority Leader)

“Mitch McConnell wants you to believe that somehow this election is about the president,” she says, never mentioning Obama’s name. "Well, he’s not on the ballot in 2014.”

Grimes has intentionally and unsubtly distanced herself from Obama. Her aides emphasize that Grimes has never actually met the president.

The number of uninsured has sharply decreased in Kentucky because of the Affordable Care Act. Beshear, the state’s governor, has become of the law’s biggest champions.

In visits to 11 counties in Western Kentucky on Wednesday and Thursday, Grimes did not mention the health care law a single time. She rarely does, even though it is one of the most significant differences on policy between Grimes and McConnell, who favors the repeal of the law.

Democrats here say that whatever the merits of the actual health law, they are politically outweighed by the costs of touting something called “Obamacare.”

“Kentucky is about bread and butter issues,” said Jonathan Hurst, Grimes campaign manager. “Jobs, jobs, jobs, that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

Instead, Grimes constantly highlights her opposition to regulations on coal plants the Obama administration rolled out in June. She doesn’t just oppose the regulations, she says she would fight them even harder than McConnell, who has sponsored legislation in Congress to stop them from going into effect.

“She has assured me, she is a friend of coal,” said Jody Jenkins, the county executive in Union County, which is heavily reliant on the industry for both jobs, before he introduced Grimes at an event.

On the campaign trail, Grimes does talk about another Democrat: Wendell Ford, the Democrat who represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate till 1998. A generation of voters have never cast a ballot for Ford, but that’s not the point. The obvious message of Grimes references to her meetings and phone calls with Ford, and Bill Clinton’s appearances on the campaign trail with Grimes, is to signal to Kentucky voters she is a certain kind of Democrat that is distinct from Obama.

McConnell’s biggest challenge to getting re-elected will still be his own personal unpopularity. One survey last year suggested he was viewed as unpopular here as Obama, and more voters in Kentucky view him unfavorably than favorably.

But the senator has spent more than $13 million on his campaign already and much of that has went into positive messages about himself, both in his primary campaign against Matt Bevin and now the contest against Grimes.

3.No one has made a big gaffe

Grimes campaign wants to cast McConnell as out of touch with the state, as she joking claims the senator needs a GPS to find his way around rural parts of the Kentucky. McConnell’s campaign flags for reporters moments when Grimes struggles to answer questions, with the implication she is either not smart enough or well-versed enough in the issues to be a senator.

Grimes is at times extremely reluctant to answer questions. When an NBC reporter asked her early Wednesday if she opposed the GOP legislation that would authorize a lawsuit against President Obama, she repeatedly refused to answer. This was not a terribly controversial issue. Every Democrat in the House voted against the lawsuit later that day.

U.S. Senate candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) greets supporters in her newly opened campaign headquarters on May 19, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.Win McNamee / Getty Images

So far though, neither candidate has made a major mistake that would cripple their campaign, like Missouri Republican and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin’s 2012 use of the phrase “legitimate rape.”

4.It’s still early

Despite the intense national attention on the race, people in Kentucky are not consumed by Grimes-McConnell. At one Grimes event, a voter asked this reporter where the candidate went to college and what kind of work she had done before politics (she attended Rhodes College in Memphis and worked as a corporate lawyer).

Even loyal Democrats and likely Grimes voters indicated they are still learning about the candidate, who had neither held office in Kentucky before and is now occupying a relatively low-profile post as secretary of state.

“I’m not sure what the secretary of state does,” said Ron Werstein, a 72-year-old corn farmer who came to a diner in Marion to hear Grimes speak and said he is supporting her anyhow because he opposes McConnell.

The secretary of state, among other duties, is in charge of administering elections in Kentucky.