It's the tweet that launched three days of interparty warfare.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee's suggestion Tuesday that Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes was an "Obama Girl" has provoked a flurry of apologies, outrage, and by Thursday, an erroneous report that the staffer responsible had been fired.
The controversy looks like the kind of story that attracts interest from politics-obsessed Washington insiders but passes with hardly a notice in Kentucky. But strategists with Grimes' and Mitch McConnell's campaigns suggest the episode underscores three maxims of what it will take to win the marquee Senate race.
Lundergan Grimes needs to win over women, by a large margin. A Grimes victory in deeply a red state depends in part on exploiting a gender gap against the Senate minority leader, much as President Obama did last year against Mitt Romney. This isn't the first time controversy has erupted after a Washington Republican attacked Kentucky's secretary of state: An NRSC spokesman sparked outrage in September when he called Grimes an "empty dress."
Gaffes rarely have staying power, but Democrats think in this case they're a gateway to a much more substantive issue. McConnell has voted against the Violence Against Women Act, including its reauthorization earlier this year. He has said that although he supports the legislation in principle, he objected to the version pushed by Democrats this year. Regardless, it's something Democrats will use against him next year.
"Neither campaign can afford many self-inflicted wounds, but any unforced error by Team McConnell that shines a light on issues important to women could prove deadly," said one Democratic strategist. "They know this. That's why they trot out [his] wife all the time and why they handled this incident so differently than the 'empty dress,' which hurt them much more than people realize."
McConnell's camp sounding tone-deaf. Other strategists suggest the GOP's criticism reflects a tone deafness to the type of opponent he now faces. Grimes isn't like McConnell's previous foes: She's 34, a young up-and-coming politician, and a woman. His campaign's famed bare-knuckles approach, so successful in past races, can rub voters the wrong way now.
That isn't lost on the Grimes campaign, which deployed the candidate's grandmother, Elsie Case, to respond on Wednesday. (It's not the first time the campaign has used her, either.) "Senator McConnell, you owe the women of Kentucky an apology," she said. "There are a million of us mothers and grandmothers in Kentucky who think Team Mitch ought to wash their mouths out with soap."
Democrats' focus on style over substance. Does Grimes's outrage go too far? The McConnell campaign struck back Wednesday, holding a conference call to blast the Democrat for distracting the campaign from issues that matter.
"When I ran for the state Legislature and Congress, I could not wait to share with voters my vision and my position on the compelling issues of the day," said former GOP Rep. Anne Northup. "That is why I ran. I am completely confused about why Alison Grimes is running and doesn't want to discuss the compelling issues of this day: health care and coal as part of the energy equation."
A Republican strategist said Grimes or her campaign has yet to publicly engage on any other issue in the campaign, including the two highlighted by Northup, that voters actually care about. She risks looking out-of-touch.
"The Grimes campaign in part is one-trick pony at this stage," said the strategist. "If you look at the way the Obama campaign executed their 'War on Women' strategy in various states, it was complimented by various policy matters. It certainly was not featured the only time their candidate came into public to discuss issues."
The aim there seems apparent: The more McConnell's campaign can goad Grimes into appearing in public, the more she'll have to answer questions about Obamacare and other unpopular issues tied to the president and the national Democratic Party.