LEXINGTON, Ky. - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has emerged victorious in his hard-fought re-election campaign for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky against Democratic rising star Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
NBC News projected that McConnell would retain his seat for a sixth straight term with 99% of precincts reporting. Despite polls showing the race close throughout, he defeated Grimes by 15 points.
Slideshow: Mitch McConnell on the campaign trail
In his victory speech, McConnell struck a newly conciliatory note. "We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we agree," he said. "Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean that we have to be in perpetual conflict."
He trumpeted the support of Noelle Hunter, an African-American college professor who appeared in advertisements for him, saying she made him appear "warm and cuddly."
NBC News projected a win for McConnell almost immediately after polls closed, and Grimes gave a brief concession speech shortly afterwards. "While tonight didn't bring us the result that we hoped for," she said, "This journey, the fight for you, was worth it."
McConnell won his race despite Kentucky voters’ negative views of him. The Republican incumbent has a 52% unfavorable rating to just 46% favorable in the NBC News exit poll, which is usually dangerous territory for a sitting senator. Fortunately for McConnell, Grimes fell short of the challenge.
McConnell also was not nearly as unpopular as President Barack Obama is in Kentucky, and McConnell worked hard to make the election a referendum on the president. Half of Kentucky voters said that Obama factored into their vote for U.S. Senate, with those looking to express opposition to the president outnumbering those expressing support by a 38% to 11% margin. And the same poll showed that Obama has a 63% disapproval rating in the Blue Grass State, with just 37% of voters approving of him. Meanwhile, 54% of voters had unfavorable impressions of Grimes, compared to just 43% favorable. The Democrat was also seriously undercut by the broader political environment. More than half – 52% -- of Kentucky voters said they feel that government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
At the end of the nearly $80 million race for Kentucky Senate, Grimes was comparing her race against McConnell to David and Goliath. "David just happens to be a female," she said Sunday.
Grimes, only 34 when she entered the race over a year ago, wasn't on her own, of course. Between them, Bill and Hillary Clinton made a total of six visits to the state on her behalf, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made two. But ultimately, the Mitch McConnell juggernaut -- a 30-year incumbency, a fearsome political operation, a red state furious at the president -- overwhelmed.
Battered by an estimated $52 million in television ads, Kentuckians briefly gave pollsters reason to believe the race was tied, but McConnell pulled away in recent days. He had managed to drive up Grimes' negative ratings, including with crucial black voters, who may have raised their eyebrows at Grimes' energetic distancing from the president.
Abundant turnout Thursday did not save Grimes. Outside a polling place in Jefferson County, a relatively liberal outpost, hospital administration worker Linda Smith said she had voted for Obama, but that she now considered him the worst president in history and was casting her vote for McConnell in protest. Asked why she was disappointed in Obama, Smith cited what she considered lies about the Affordable Care Act, including that premiums wouldn't go up. Asked if her premiums had gone up, she said they hadn't.
David Olsen, a 63-year-old insurance adjuster in Louisville, said he voted for Grimes because he blamed McConnell for gridlock in Washington. "It seems like what Republicans keep doing is accusing Obama of a lot of fake scandals," he said.
Grimes campaigned on coal, equal pay, the minimum wage, and student loans -- but most of her message was about how McConnell had to go. Now, McConnell, who promised influence and experience and capitalized on Obama's unpopularity, emerges as the ultimate survivor.
Democrats had long fantasized about taking out McConnell, whose name has become synonymous with obstructionism -- saying his top priority was to deny the president a second term. Tea party activists agreed. Seeing McConnell as the worst kind of establishment sell-out, they backed his primary opponent Matt Bevin, with FreedomWorks president even declaring at a rally, “I argue today we have to beat the Republicans before we can beat the Democrats." Despite big names like Glenn Back rallying at Bevin's side, McConnell still won the primary with 60% of the vote.
Earlier in the week, McConnell had crisscrossed the state with Kentucky's other senator, the more popular Rand Paul, telling voters they had an opportunity to play a rare outsized role in national politics. The implication: Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, Rand Paul as president. That's not quite in the bag yet, to say the least, but McConnell just got one step closer to making that dream come true.
NBC News election unit contributed to this report.