BARDSTOWN, Ky.—In a bourbon-tasting room here stuffed with supporters, Alison Lundergan Grimes flashes a toothless smile as Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky's first female governor, optimistically introduces her as the state's future "first female U.S. senator."
Grimes takes the floor and wraps her arm around Collins. "You made history with her," she tells the crowd. "We will make history again."
As Grimes crisscrosses the state on a 50-county tour ahead of Tuesday's primary and an expected brutal general-election campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, she is making her gender a defining issue.
"The difference between Mitch McConnell and myself?" Grimes says. "Well, it's somebody on the wrong side of every woman's issue out there."
In a brief interview at Dude's Muffler and Brake shop, in Lawrenceburg, Grimes is unabashed that her campaign would focus on her gender to win over women voters.
"The people of this state, especially the women across the commonwealth, they are our strength—53 percent of the electorate," she says. "They are the reason that I'm currently Kentucky's only female statewide elected officer and they will be the reason why we break through the ceiling that exists and finally get our first female United States senator."
At three consecutive stops Friday, Grimes, in blue jeans, a white shirt, and an ocean-green blazer, slapped at the "empty dress" remark of National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring (though she wrongly attributed it). "I am the Kentucky woman, who my Kentucky colleagues on the Republican side so gentlemanly refer to me as an 'empty dress,' " she tells those gathered in Bardstown.
She then ticks off the issues that she hopes will divide women voters from McConnell as he seeks a sixth term: his opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
Left unmentioned: abortion, the main wedge that Democrats nationwide have used to divide GOP opponents from the swingiest parts of the electorate. In a twist, it is McConnell broaching the topic, hoping to create a fissure between the national pro-abortion-rights supporters who are helping bankroll Grimes's campaign and the conservative voters she needs to carry this Southern state. He held a press conference in Washington earlier this week pushing to ban abortions after 20 weeks.
"We should all agree that unborn children should be protected at least from the point that they're capable of feeling pain," McConnell pointedly said of the legislation.
Grimes supports abortion rights. "I come from a family of five women," she says in the interview. "I would never pretend to tell one of my sisters what to do with their body and I don't want the federal government doing that either.… When it comes to choice, I believe, should a woman have to make that decision, it's between herself, her doctor, and her God."
As for McConnell's 20-week abortion ban, she says, "I think you always put the health, life, and safety of the mother first, should that decision have to be made. I'm not for moving backwards the principles the Supreme Court has set forward."
As she spins through muffler shops, cafes, and bourbon rooms, Grimes is a compelling speaker. Her voice booms over the assembled crowds. "A loud voice, yes, I learned that with five girls in my family," she says, to laughs. When she asks for an "amen," the crowds deliver.
Ted Jackson, a veteran GOP strategist in the state, predicts that Grimes's showmanship will lose its luster as the spotlight begins to blare after Tuesday's primary, saying she has "hollow eyes." "Her overly dramatic style is more suited to game-show host than United States Senator and she will not wear well on voters," Jackson says.
For now, though, friendly audiences in the small towns between Lexington and Louisville are eating it up. She pokes repeatedly at McConnell's mistaken use of a Duke basketball player in an ad and his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when he emerged waving a gun above his head. McConnell, she teases, managed to shoot himself in the foot with an unloaded weapon.
"This Kentucky woman," Grimes says in a common refrain, "now 16 polls deep, is running even or ahead."
Still, there is uneasiness. Grimes and her advisers know the real fight begins after Tuesday, when McConnell is expected to dispatch his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, and turn his fire on her. They must ensure that "this Kentucky woman" is just starting, not peaking.
"We're going to start telling the truth about him," State Auditor Adam Edelen, who was travelling on the bus with Grimes, says of McConnell, "and they're going to start lying about us."
This article appears in the May 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.