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How one ad for Mitch ‘Mitchy’ McConnell fueled his victory

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell celebrates with Noelle Hunter, center, at an election night party in Louisville, Ky.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Ask Mitch McConnell’s campaign what helped secure the Kentucky senator’s reelection, and they’ll give a surprising amount of credit to a two-time Obama voter.

And no, not Alison Lundergan Grimes.

It was an ad featuring Noelle Hunter, a community college professor who told the story of how McConnell helped return her daughter from war-torn Mali amid a custody dispute. McConnell’s aides say the ad helped to turn what had been a tight battle with the Democrat Grimes into a double-digit romp.

The 60-second ad -- twice as long as the typical campaign spot -- features Hunter explaining how after a “dark period in my life” she and her husband divorced. Despite a custody agreement, her husband took their daughter with him to Mali.

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“I didn’t know whether she was alive or dead,” Hunter says in the ad. But after she reached out to the senator, he made retrieving her daughter a personal priority.

“He let it be known that this little Kentuckian needed to come home,” she says. As she notes in the ad, McConnell met her and her daughter at the airport.

Hunter’s testimonial was part of a larger strategy by McConnell to overcome what aides acknowledge were potential liabilities in his bid for a sixth term: his low personal approval ratings, and broader frustration among voters in the state about gridlock in Washington that Grimes’ campaign accused the incumbent of helping to orchestrate.

In the closing month of the campaign, McConnell’s TV ads included a greater mix of positive ads than usual, focusing on areas where the senator had delivered on behalf of constituents. But no ad, aides say, touched voters the way that Hunter’s did.

McConnell aides say they saw a spike in his approval ratings after the ad began airing. Voters would mention the ad in open-ended questions the campaign would ask as they conducted internal polling.

“We had to figure out how to tell the story of Sen. McConnell’s work for his constituents in a media environment of constant political ads and an electorate that was quickly tuning them out,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s campaign manager. “Dr. Hunter cut through the clutter and told her authentic story better than anyone ever could’ve imagined.”

When McConnell celebrated his victory in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday night, Hunter was there on stage with him. She referred to him as “Mitchy.” He later said she did the unthinkable: “She made me seem all warm and cuddly.”

In an interview, Hunter said that she once held the same negative view of McConnell that others had. In fact, before approaching McConnell, she went to others, including Grimes, on someone’s suggestion that perhaps Grimes’ close relationship with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of State, would help.

With little progress being made, she finally called McConnell’s office.

“I had that caricature of him as well,” she said. But from their first meeting she found him far different. “Mitch is a doll, if I can just say that. … The Mitch that we see on TV or that he’s portrayed in here in the Commonwealth and nationally is not the Mitch I know.”

The strategy that led to using Hunter’s story in an ad is one of necessity. With Congress at a standstill and the era of earmarks over, lawmakers have fewer accomplishments to share in their TV ads. Some senators like McConnell therefore relied on stories of constituent service like Hunter’s to relate their work in Washington to voters back home.

“I didn’t know I needed my government until I really needed my government,” Hunter said in an interview. “He did his job. That’s what we send them to Washington for.”

On the eve of the election, Hunter said she met McConnell at one of his final campaign stops.

“He grabbed me and hugged me -- which he always does by the way. You don’t think of Mitch as a hugger,” she said. “He said, ‘You are the star of this campaign.’”

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.


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