Alison Lundergan Grimes' mission was already going to be hard enough. But then the Kentucky Democrat kicked off her campaign to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the bumpiest fashion possible.
Grimes announced her intention to run against McConnell recently in a packed, overheated room to which she arrived a half-hour late and then stood in front of a campaign sign that made it appear as if she were running for another term as Kentucky's secretary of state rather than the U.S. Senate.
"She did what we in the newspaper business call burying the lead," wrote Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Joseph Gerth. "She was more than halfway through her four-minute speech before she told us why we were standing there."
That rocky start — and all it says about Grimes' organizational and political acumen — is actually the least of Grimes' troubles as she mounts a Democratic campaign in a deep-red state in the heart of coal country against a powerful incumbent who's already been elected and re-elected five times.
Moreover, she will inevitably be tied to President Obama, who lost the state in 2012 by 23 percentage points and who recently announced new environmental policies that would tighten regulations on coal-fired power plants, policies that coal country critics say will eliminate thousands of jobs and raise energy costs.
"Midterm elections are often primarily, if not more than that, a referendum on the incumbent in the White House," Stuart Rothenberg, author of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, said. "McConnell is going to make the race about Obama and the so-called war on coal and health care, and he is going to paint Grimes into the same picture as Obama. It's all about her ability to avoid that."
McConnell, who has already amassed a $12 million war chest, is not taking the political competition lightly.
Even before Grimes officially announced her candidacy, McConnell's campaign and groups backing him were running television ads linking Grimes to Obama and portraying her as too liberal for Kentucky.
"Accepting the invitation from countless Washington liberals to become President Obama's Kentucky candidate was a courageous decision by Alison Lundergan Grimes and I look forward to a respectful exchange of ideas," McConnell said in a statement shortly after Grimes' announcement. "The next 16 months will provide a great opportunity for Kentuckians to contrast a liberal agenda that promotes a war on coal families and government-rationed health care with someone who works everyday to protect Kentuckians from those bad ideas."
Kentucky Democrats reject the pessimistic talk, noting that Grimes waged an underdog statewide campaign in 2011 to become secretary of state.
Democrats point to early polls that show Grimes tied with McConnell, who has long suffered from mediocre approval ratings back home. Kentucky Tea Party groups believe McConnell is too moderate, while other voters view him as a dry and humorless political insider who they'd be happy to replace with the right fresh face.
"In all honesty, Grimes is the best candidate who has ever run against McConnell," said Matt Wyatt, a Democratic strategist in the Blue Grass State. "I'm sure that looking at the race from outside the state you wouldn't believe it, but if you are on the ground in Kentucky you know it; it is apparent just by neighbors taking to neighbors."
McConnell is no stranger to competitive campaigns, including a close 2008 race against wealthy Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford. McConnell won by nearly 6 percentage points, but Democrats say Grimes is a far more appealing candidate than Lunsford, who had never won a statewide race and was damaged by a barrage of McConnell attack ads.
"Nobody liked Bruce Lunsford," one Democratic strategist said.
Democrats say it will be harder for McConnell, 71, to attack the youthful, energetic Grimes, 34, who they say can win the backing of women and voters in western Kentucky.
"By virtue of gender and age, it's a pretty good contrast," Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said. "It's not an easy race for Democrats, but it's going to be competitive."
The McConnell camp, headed by Sen. Rand Paul's former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, quickly produced a campaign spot — in the form of a rap song — that ridiculed Grimes' inept campaign rollout, which her aides muddled even further when they declared that it was not the start of her campaign but an announcement about it.
"One reason the rollout was such a disappointment is that we have a really good shot at getting in this time," Wyatt said. "It's a huge opportunity."