Kentucky Derby: Who Will Race Mitch McConnell?
PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, leaves his office for the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2013, in Washington.

Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )


  • BREAKING - DEMOCRATS TAKE TO THE AIRWAVES AGAINST MCCONNELL: ABC's JEFF ZELENY reports that Democrats are without a Senate candidate in Kentucky following Ashley Judd's decision to take a pass on challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell, so they are turning to one of the state's favorite pastimes to draw attention to the race: the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is opening its first statewide advertisement today against McConnell, ABC News has learned, by airing a radio spot that sounds like a play-by-play announcer calling a big game. "It's tournament time and Sen. McConnell's playing for the Washington special interests - against Kentucky," the ad says, with an announcer's voice speaking over the crowd. "Kentucky is trying to move up, trying to provide assistance for workers who lost their jobs and they're blocked by McConnell, who scored big for himself for nearly 30 years." LISTEN TO THE DSCC'S AD:
  • THE $40 MILLION RACE?: There may be more realistic opportunities for Democrats to pick up seats next year, but there are fewer targets bigger than McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, as he seeks re-election to a sixth term, Zeleny notes. "Kentuckians know that Mitch McConnell is playing for 'Team Washington' and not for Kentucky," said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Committee. The radio commercial is the latest escalation in the Kentucky race, which has already drawn more advertising than any other race at this early stage of the campaign. McConnell has already raised $7 million in a contest that party strategists believe could cost both sides at least $20 million.
  • ASHLEY'S ANSWER: After months of flirtation, actress Ashley Judd used a series of tweets on Wednesday to announce she would not pursue a Senate bid against McConnell: "After serious and thorough contemplation, I realize that my responsibilities & energy at this time need to be focused on my family. Regretfully, I am currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate. I have spoken to so many Kentuckians over these last few months who expressed their desire for a fighter for the people & new leader. While that won't be me at this time, I will continue to work as hard as I can to ensure the needs of Kentucky families are met by returning this Senate seat to whom it rightfully belongs: the people & their needs, dreams, and great potential." WATCH ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent JEFF ZELENY's "Good Morning America" report on Judd's decision:


ABC's RICK KLEIN: The Supreme Court may be remembered as a sideshow. That might be just as well, for those on both sides of the gay marriage debate. This extraordinary week served to highlight the extent to which that debate has largely moved on; politicians are racing the public to keep up, in a society that's growing more accepting of gay marriage by the day. In this equation, short of a high-court ruling that shocks in its sweep, we're going to be back we started, with states wrestling on their own. The challenge for the gay-rights movement is to not let the moment lapse - using the court not for a hoped-for victory so much as for a moment to expand their argument.

ABC's MICHAEL FALCONE: If not Ashley Judd, then who? Speculation about which candidate Democrats will tap to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - and his multi-million-dollar campaign juggernaut - has largely landed on the shoulders of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. As the National Journal notes, the 34-year-old Kentucky Democrat is a "proven fundraiser who is well-known statewide." Grimes has yet to make her intentions public, but the spin from Democrats on Wednesday that Grimes' interest in the race gave Judd "the space to really make a decision and decide what was best for her" is an indication that we will be hearing from the potential McConnell challenger soon. The Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy said in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, "There's a lot about her Democrats like - not the least of which is a major contrast in generations, not to mention gender." But, don't forget, if Grimes runs, she'll face what Politico's Manu Raju describes this morning as a "ruthless campaign" in which McConnell will "use 'every penny'" of his campaign war chest to hold onto his seat.

ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: Could non-Senate candidate Ashley Judd be biding her time for a better race opportunity? One Kentucky Democratic source who is close to Judd says yes. "I do think there have been a number of people who have said to Ashley this was not the race and the Rand Paul race [would be] the right race," this source says. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is up for re-election in 2016 and per Kentucky law (unlike other states) a candidate cannot run for both Senate and president of the United States simultaneously. Paul is widely believed to be considering a 2016 presidential bid, but even if he does not, this same source says Judd has been counseled by both Washington, D.C., and Kentucky advisers that this is the better race for her to enter "in order to give her time to establish residency, secure the grassroots, and that is impossible with the current timetable."

ABC's SERENA MARSHALL: You don't always get what you want - at least that's what both Sens. John McCain and Chuck Schumer said yesterday on U.S.-Mexico border. But they also said compromise is key to their success in meeting a new deadline for an immigration bill: immediately following the end of lawmakers' spring recess on April 8. Lessons learned were a key feature of the senators' border tour yesterday. Schumer left saying, "A fence wouldn't be practical, it would be hugely expensive to build and not practical. … There is not one size that fits all. Some people say 'just do this or just do that,' we need a comprehensive approach that as John McCain says is both effective, but also cost effective, because we do have to watch our dollars here too." And McCain expressed hope for a deal, "As Chuck said, nobody is going to be totally happy with this legislation, no one will be because we are having to make compromises, and that's what makes for good legislation, is compromise that brings everybody together."

ABC'S MATTHEW DOWD: Biden, Clinton, Cuomo are considered the leading candidates to seek the Democratic nomination for president in the coming open election. Are we talking about 2016 or 1988? Yes, this headline could apply to 2016. But the funny thing is, this could have also been written more than 25 years ago in advance of the 1988 presidential elections. While we are talking about a different Clinton (this time Hillary and not Bill) and Cuomo (and the son Andrew and not the father Mario), it is amazing how the bench of the Democratic Party seems trapped in years gone by. A few days ago on "This Week" on ABC I referred to a meeting of CPAC as something that could take place in the Mesozoic era. But Democrats shouldn't bask in the idea that they don't have a dinosaur problem too. Where are the new names? Where is the bench that isn't named Clinton, Biden or Cuomo? I understand two of these folks are relatives of the names from the 1980s, but come on, isn't there a future for Democrats that isn't a dinosaur name from the past?


"THE SECRET REPUBLICAN PLAN TO REPEAL 'OBAMACARE,'" by the National Journal's Chris Frates. "By Election Day, Senate Republicans were ready to, as [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell put it, 'take this monstrosity down.' 'We were prepared to do that had we had the votes to do it after the election. Well, the election didn't turn out the way we wanted it to,' McConnell told National Journal in an interview. 'The monstrosity has … begun to be implemented and we're not giving up the fight.' … During the legislative debate over the law, Democrats promised Obamacare would create jobs, lower health care costs, and allow people to keep their current plans if they chose to. Those vows, Republicans argue, are already being broken. The Congressional Budget Office, the Hill's nonpartisan scorekeeper, estimated that the health care law would reduce employment by about 800,000 workers and result in about 7 million people losing their employer-sponsored health care over a decade. The CBO also estimated that Obamacare during that period would raise health care spending by roughly $580 billion. … If Republicans hope to completely repeal the health care law, they have to start by taking back the Senate in 2014 and would likely need to win the White House two years later. Still, some Republicans think the politics are on their side. 'I'm not one of those folks who … because I didn't support something, I want it to be bad. I want good things for Americans. But I do think this is going to create a lot of issues and … affect things throughout 2014 as it relates to politics,' Republican Sen. Bob Corker said. 'The outcome likely will create a better atmosphere for us.'"

HILLARY WATCH: "Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state to President Barack Obama, will attend the Economic Club of Grand Rapids' 26th Annual Dinner this summer," reports Michigan Live's Zane McMillin. "The Club announced Wednesday that Clinton, a former U.S. senator for New York, will be guest of honor at the Monday, June 17, event in the Steelcase Ballroom of DeVos Place. Only Economic Club members are able to attend."


BACKSTORY: WHY JUDD SAID 'NO.' Jonathan Miller, one of Ashley Judd's advisers in Kentucky as well as the former state treasurer, told ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE that Judd made the decision not to launch a Kentucky Senate bid very recently. "She called me in the last couple of days to let me know, she called her early supporters," Miller said. "As little as a week ago we were talking strategy and big plans. It's quite a recent decision to pull out, but from the beginning she has always harbored doubts … she's been carefully deliberating and during the deliberation process she came to realize it would be a gruesome couple of years, and she didn't want to put herself and her family through that. One thing she did say is, she was energized by the whole process, energized in a much greater way." Miller expects her to get involved in Kentucky public service and to campaign "quite vigorously" for whoever enters the race against McConnell. Miller said a group of "really close friends, family advisers, guardians of Ashley's interests, D.C. professionals, and Kentucky activists like myself" helped her make the decision and gave her "a lot of feedback about what a difficult personal race it would be as well." Miller says it truly came down to Judd's realizing what a "difficult and grueling campaign against McConnell" it would be and that "weighed against her the most."

NEWTOWN FAMILIES IN BLOOMBERG ANTI-GUN ADS. The families of four victims from the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary appear in two new anti-gun TV ads out this morning, part of an effort to reinvigorate a lagging campaign for new gun controls, notes ABC's DEVIN DWYER. "Don't let the memory of Newtown fade without doing something real," Terri Rousseau, the mother of slain teacher Lauren Rousseau, says in an emotionally charged appeal. The ads also feature personal testimonials from Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis; Chris and Lynn McDonnell, parents of 7-year-old Grace McDonnell; and Jillian Soto, sister of teacher Vicki Soto, 27. All talk about their loved ones and what it was like to learn the tragic news on Dec. 14, 2012. The ads, which will run only in Connecticut, come as that state's legislature considers state-level gun control measures.

GAY MARRIAGE, ROUND 2: SUPREME COURT SKEPTICAL OF DOMA. A majority of the Supreme Court's justices expressed skepticism yesterday about the federal law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, reports ABC's CHRIS GOOD, ARIANE DE VOGUE and MATTHEW LAROTONDA. Yesterday's arguments on DOMA marked the second straight day that the nation's highest court considered a high-profile case on gay marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy, viewed as a key swing vote, appeared critical of the federal government's declining to recognize marriages that states have made legal. Kennedy cited concerns about federalism, saying there was a "real risk" of the federal law running into conflict with a state's power. The four liberal justices expressed similar concerns over federal power, as well as other concerns about equal protection of gay Americans under the law. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked about a marriage that is recognized by the state but not the federal government. She pointed out that a couple that is legally married in a state might be denied marital deductions and Social Security benefits. "Your spouse is very sick, but you can't get leave," she said. "One might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?"

'GANG OF 8' SENATORS SEE BORDER PATROL IN ACTION. Four of the U.S. senators leading the charge on immigration reform got more than they expected yesterday when they came to Nogales, Ariz., to check on border security. ABC's JIM AVILA AND SERENA MARSHALL report that just a few steps away from where they stood with Customs and Border Patrol officials, the problem facing the nation unfolded before their eyes: A young woman was sprinting her way out of Mexico, then climbing a security fence, only to be caught by the border patrol within seconds. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., soon tweeted about the event, saying: "Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in Nogales. And Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real." The Border Patrol has more agents than ever, nearly 22,000, with 651 miles of fence along the 1,969-mile-long border. Technology assists the boots on the ground, with 125 airplanes and six drones patrolling the Mexican frontier all working together to make crossing the border illegally more difficult than ever. In fact, apprehensions like the ones the senators saw yesterday are down 78 percent from their peak in 2000.

SENATORS REACT: Arizona's Senate delegation, McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, both Republicans, hosted Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., for Wednesday's tour along the border. All four senators are members of the so-called "Gang of Eight" that is working on a solution to the nation's immigration issues. "Well, I'd have to know all the details there to give you a judgment," Schumer said. "One of the things we learned is that a lot of people cross the border are doing it for drug purposes, too. But I don't know what happened in this situation." The incident was "surprising" to Bennet. "I just have never seen it before," he said. For McCain, the incident was all-too-normal. "One of the sad things about all of this is that most of those people who jump over the fence are doing that because they want a better life," he said at the news conference following the tour. "And I understand that. So we separate the drug cartels from individuals or somebody trying to cross over so they improve their lives."

OBAMA EXPECTS IMMIGRATION BILL IN APRIL. President Obama expects an immigration bill to come before the Senate next month and voiced optimism that a final bill could pass through Congress this summer, notes Fusion's JORDAN FABIAN. "I'm actually optimistic that when they get back they will introduce a bill," Obama said during an interview with Univision. "My sense is that they have come close and my expectation is that we'll actually see a bill on the floor of the Senate next month." The president has repeatedly said that he would propose his own immigration bill should negotiations in Congress grind to a halt. But Obama refused to say that he would take such action even if the lawmakers fail to introduce a bill in April. "I'm not going to presuppose that they don't [reach an agreement]," he said. When Obama was asked if immigration reform could still get done by summer, a goal he set out earlier this year, the president replied, "I believe so."

NOTED: The White House on Wednesday announced that Obama would visit Mexico and Costa Rica in May. The president said he would discuss ways to boost trade and economic cooperation with Mexican and Central American leaders. "A lot of what drives both illegal immigration to the United States, but also what drives a lot of the violence in these countries, is a lack of opportunity," Obama said "If we can help them to grow, that could be good for the United States, that could be good for those countries as well."

BIDEN: SENATE GUN VOTES ARE 'JUST THE BEGINNING.' Vice President Joe Biden told gun control supporters Wednesday that the upcoming votes on gun legislation in the Senate are only "the beginning" in the country's push toward alleviating gun violence, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. "That doesn't mean this is the end of the process. This is the beginning of the process," Biden said in a conference call hosted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "The American people are way ahead of their political leaders, and we, the president and I, intend, and the mayors intend, to stay current with the American people." Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will consider a comprehensive gun package, including universal background checks, next month. The vice president voiced his belief that the country is "on the verge" of requiring universal background checks, a measure that has drawn opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The assault weapons ban will not be included in the comprehensive gun package considered next month, but will be considered as an amendment. "This is just the beginning. We believe that weapons of war have no place on our streets," Biden said.

SECOND DATE: ANOTHER DINNER FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA AND SENATE REPUBLICANS. Look who's coming for dinner again: Senate Republicans. ABC's SUNLEN MILLER notes that on Wednesday, April 10, President Obama will dine with a new group of 12 Republican senators. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was tasked with organizing the second guest list for dinner, which is still being assembled, Republican aides on Capitol Hill confirm. The location of the dinner is still to be announced. This second dinner party follows one earlier this month, on March 6, in which President Obama hosted 12 Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel to break bread.

HOW'S OBAMA'S NCAA BRACKET? Asked how his March Madness bracket is doing, President Obama yesterday responded with one word: "busted." ABC's MARY BRUCE points out that 11 of the president's picks are among the Sweet 16 and his Final Four are still in the men's NCAA tournament, but his teams in the Western division did not do as well. "But Delaware won last night!" Vice President Biden was eager to point out of the women's tournament. Biden reportedly attended last night's game and watched his home-state University of Delaware Blue Hens take down North Carolina. Obama still has high hopes for the women's teams he picked. "I think my women's bracket is doing much better than my men's bracket," he admitted. The president's comments came after a swearing-in ceremony for his new Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, in the Oval Office.


NANCY PELOSI SPOTLIGHTS CHILD CARE CRISIS. An announcement from the Service Employees International Union: "House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), working moms and child care providers will hold a news conference Thursday to call attention to the impact a severe shortage of child care options has on California women, their children, and the California economy. … Led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a coalition of providers, parents and forward-thinking employers has come together to press for state and national policy solutions to improve childcare choices and availability so women on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder can participate in the workforce and bring their families into the middle-class." The news conference with Pelosi and representatives from the SEIU and other organizations takes place today at 11:30am PT at the South of Market Child Care in San Francisco.


?@mlcalderone: Time's two covers this week: "Gay Marriage Already Won"

@tackettdc: BREAKING.. US economy slowed less than estimated in 4thQ. More business spending, smaller trade gap

@mkraju: Grassley crafting new GOP gun bill, and McConnell says he may support it. w/ @BresPolitico.

@EJDionne: Cheers for Mike Bloomberg's fight for sane gun laws. But we still need to reform money's political role. My column:

@ananavarro: Having a WH Chef must be nice too. Romney:"Going to grocery store, shopping on my own, kind of nice to do by myself" …

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