Alison Grimes’s campaign for McConnell’s Senate seat has gotten this far for one reason: she’s not McConnell. Now she needs to say who she is and what she stands for.
Things got heated in the gathering area behind the workshop of Guthrie Farms in Western Kentucky.
Not when Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes heard repeated concerns about regulations forcing farmers to take care of “the Mexicans” or after the laughter subsided when she was asked if she believed in “Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve.”
No, the real action was last December when the University of Kentucky Wildcats lost their annual battle with the University of Louisville Cardinals. There were three Cardinals fans in the room, a spot in deep rural Western Kentucky where folks meet to play cards.
One man got so mad he kicked a chair, not an uncommon occurrence during basketball season in Kentucky.
This year’s game promises to be intense.
Unless Grimes starts showing improvement and confidence as a candidate soon, that game and the Kentucky Derby might be the only top-notch competition the Bluegrass State has to offer over the next year.
Last Friday at the roundtable in Mayfield, Grimes was less than 10 miles from where the state’s annual Fancy Farm picnic takes place. It was there—just a month after getting in the race, first with what was described as “one of the worst rollouts ever” and then with a Bill Clinton-assisted mulligan—that Grimes gave national Democrats reason to smile.
She handled herself well, delivered some memorable one-liners at McConnell’s expense and didn’t fall to pieces the way most 34-year-olds running their first federal campaigns might.
As Grimes made introductions on Friday far back from the highway and off a gravel road, she revisited that glory day after one of the men noted they had met before, at the picnic.
“We made that little line famous, that if Mitch McConnell had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it. Right here in Graves County,” Grimes said.
Unfortunately for her and national Democrats drooling at the thought of knocking off the man who made making President Barack Obama a one-term president his top priority, that was the high point of the campaign so far.
Grimes has largely stayed hidden from public view, traveling extensively for fundraisers and largely running a stand-in campaign with relative political newcomer and press secretary Charly Norton lobbing the endless, aimless attacks at McConnell.
She has checked some Democratic candidate boxes, e.g., accepting the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, and done a number of similar roundtable events like the one last Friday but generally without press.
The campaign, such as it is, has hinged on Norton’s press releases that include charges against McConnell ranging from his engaging in a “backroom deal”—meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate over the deal that ended the federal government shutdown and extended the debt ceiling—and being a Kentucky senator only 50 percent of the time because of his leadership role.
When asked Friday if Democrat, Kentuckian and former Senate Minority Whip Wendell Ford, or one-time vice president and former Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were only serving their states 50 percent of the time, Grimes said, “I will tell you that in the 28 years that Mitch McConnell has been in Washington, D.C., it is out of his own mouth that he says he has two jobs: One, the job that the people in Kentucky elected him to, the other his leadership position … This is a race that I’m running because Kentuckians are tired of a part-time senator. They want someone who instead of dedicating 50 percent of their time is fully focusing on 100 percent of their time making sure that Kentuckians have a voice in the United States Senate.”
To ease any concerns Kentuckians might have, Grimes told the Madisonville Messenger she wouldn’t be “running for any leadership position” if she’s elected to the Senate. That would’ve been a neat trick for a freshman.
But after National Republican Senatorial Committee staffer Brad Dayspring described Grimes as an “empty dress” in an email to The Hill newspaper during the Syria deliberations—empty dress might be the two words Grimes now says the most often—and McConnell’s votes against renewing the Violence Against Women Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, there was enough for Democrats to establish a pattern.
The following Wednesday, McConnell responded, rolling out Republican Kentucky women to blast Grimes for manufacturing outrage to avoid talking about her policy positions.
The Grimes’s campaign response to that was a press release from Norton that said in the subject line that Team McConnell said Grimes “was asking for it.”
Despite the quotes, Norton could not point to a Republican who had said the odious phrase so often associated with sexual assault. Norton called it an “idiomatic expression.”
When McConnell won re-election in 2008, he carried the women’s vote by 1 point over Democrat Bruce Lunsford, but data is sketchy and it’s nearly impossible to tell how closely women voters in Kentucky track with national trends favoring Democrats.
There is grumbling in Frankfort and Washington, at least outside of the DSCC’s press office, about the state of the Grimes campaign and concerns about the lack of growth.
Four factors have stopped Democrats from pushing the panic button: 1. It is just still way too darn early for Kentuckians to care about an election just less than a year away. 2. Grimes is avoiding any lasting damage from her missteps. 3. In national media reports, Grimes is being hailed as a strong and sturdy challenger who excels on the stump. And 4. She outraised McConnell in her first quarterly report at the end of October.
The first two are undeniable and speak to just how much time and space Grimes has in front of her to find her footing as a candidate.
The third is risky for Grimes, clearly enjoying the national media spotlight and potentially risking complacency as she and her team have looked at poll numbers in the mid to low-40s as signs of support instead of the more likely result of dislike for McConnell.
But the fourth factor was key. Grimes raised more than $2.5 million in her first quarter as a candidate, out-raising the Senate minority leader, who came up with a personal best of $2.27 million.
While the triumph was near universally pronounced as an eye-popping sign of Grimes’s strength, it too could be misleading.
First and foremost, it ignores the $10 million McConnell still has in cash despite a shocking burn rate aimed at bruising Grimes and Bevin right out of the gate. Not to mention the cozy six degrees of separation two post-Citizens United groups—McConnell’s SuperPAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads—share with McConnell, beginning with former campaign manager and longtime ally Steven Law, who holds leadership positions with both groups.