Alison Lundergan Grimes Is Talking a Lot About Her Gender

Grimes is unapologetic about appealing to women, as the real contest begins after Tuesday’s primary.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announces she will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, during an afternoon news conference in Frankfort, Kentucky, July 1, 2013. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
MCT via Getty Images
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
May 18, 2014, 6:28 a.m.

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.”

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