SOMERSET, Ky. (AP) — Gina Roberts was pleased to see a woman capture a statewide office in Kentucky when Alison Lundergan Grimes was elected secretary of state. That doesn't mean Roberts is voting for the Democrat over Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in November.
"We're comfortable with Mitch,'" said Roberts, an office manager who described herself as a conservative, but not a partisan. "We know that he represents us, and we know what he does for Kentucky."
This is the crux of Grimes' challenge as Democrats defend their uneasy Senate majority.
McConnell has a consistent, though narrow advantage in most polls. Grimes' mission: drive up turnout in urban Democratic strongholds, but also win over voters such as Roberts and others who never have supported President Barack Obama and now detest his administration.
Grimes pulled it off in her 2011 campaign for secretary of state. In Kentucky's Pulaksi County, south of Lexington, for example, she won 46 percent of the vote. Compare that with Obama's 21.7 percent in 2008 and 19.1 percent in 2012.
But the road is tougher against McConnell.
He calls Grimes a rubber stamp for the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and contends Democrats are waging a "war on coal" that has cost thousands of jobs in the state's mining industry.
One of the incumbent's latest television spots sums up his pitch: "Obama needs Alison Grimes," an announcer states. "Kentucky needs Mitch McConnell."
McConnell insists that the key to making Washington run smoothly "is to put a Kentuckian in charge of the Senate." That's the scenario if McConnell wins his race and Republicans pick up the six additional seats they need to oust Democrats from their majority.
The "real candidate of change in this race," says McConnell, 72 and seeking a sixth term, "is me."
Grimes counters with economic populism and righteous indignation, arguing that McConnell has abandoned most Kentuckians during his three decades in the Senate.
"He's tried to tie me to every national figure out there whose interests are different than Kentucky," she said at a union-sponsored event in Louisville. "What he doesn't tell people of this state is that the gridlock that he champions is why Congress isn't working. It's why the president is wrongly ruling by executive order."
McConnell sometimes notes he's the longest serving senator in Kentucky history and would become the state's first majority leader since Democrat Alben Barkley helped put in place President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Grimes retorts: "I want to be a representative of the people of Kentucky, not someone who's looking for a promotion that will somehow trickle down to Kentucky."
She says she's a "fighter for the middle class," including those working in the coal mines. She blasts McConnell as "too busy trying to raise profits for the millionaires and billionaires while promising not to ever give a vote to raise the minimum wage."
McConnell won more than 953,000 votes in 2008, his last race. Yet in what was a maximum turnout year for Democrats, Obama ran 200,000 votes behind in Kentucky.
Grimes and two-term Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, meanwhile, won in odd-year elections with no federal races. Beshear peaked at 619,552 votes in 2007 and fell to 464,265 in 2011; Grimes' 494,368 votes are well shy of what it will take to defeat McConnell.
"She'll get the turnout from us in the city," said retired public school teacher Anne Lindauer, a Louisville Democrat and Grimes supporter. "She's just got to find a way to reach everybody else."
Bobby Clue, a Kentucky native who runs the Chamber of Commerce in Pulaski County after working for both Beshear and his Republican predecessor, described a "cultural gap" between national Democrats and his community 130 miles southeast of Louisville.
"It's just a different speed here," Clue said, "and we don't ever hear President Obama's or Nancy Pelosi's or Harry Reid's name in anything other than a negative context."
In Harlan County, a coal-producing community on the Virginia border, Grimes backer and county magistrate David Kennedy said anyone who gives Grimes a chance would see "an old Southern Democrat, a conservative Democrat."
"The biggest difference between her and Mitch McConnell is that she's for the little guy: the small businesses and the workers," he said. "Mitch is for the big businesses."
Grimes' team also notes that she will have the state to herself for a chunk of September because of McConnell's duties on Capitol Hill. Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to pass bills to fund government in the new budget year.
Follow Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP