Why Democrats Are Accusing Mitch McConnell of Sexism

The latest Kentucky Senate controversy shows how Democrats think they can pull off an upset.

Stone wall: McConnell & Co. frowns on Obama delays.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Nov. 21, 2013, 6:01 a.m.

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.

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