FANCY FARM, Ky. — Alison Lundergan Grimes almost never seems to mention her current job.
She talks a lot about Mitch McConnell, a lot about being a “Kentucky woman” (Neil Diamond’s song of that name can often be heard blasting from the loudspeakers of her bus), and more again about McConnell, the Senate Republican leader she is hoping to unseat in November.
What she doesn’t talk about nearly as often are her qualifications, her record as Kentucky secretary of state, or any of the laundry list of successes that are standard on the stump. She glosses past all that in favor of broad biographical details that are self-obvious: She’s young and she’s a she.
And even those facts are often used to keep the focus on McConnell, as she did in her most memorable attack line at the Fancy Farm political picnic. “If Mitch McConnell were a TV show,” Grimes said, “he would be Mad Men, treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season.”
The Grimes calculation appears to be that if most voters are thinking about McConnell in November, she’ll win. But if Grimes doesn’t want the race to be about her, neither does McConnell. He wants to focus on President Obama.
“She a new face for Barack Obama,” McConnell declared at a recent GOP county breakfast, as activists in western Kentucky ate biscuits and eggs on tables strewn with “OBAMA-GRIMES” bumper stickers.
Combined, these strategies have created a strange dynamic where Grimes, one of the most energetic and magnetic candidates of the campaign cycle, has emerged as a supporting actor in her own race. The Kentucky campaign is instead fast becoming a popularity contest in which Grimes isn’t one of the contestants.
For Grimes, the problem is that however disliked Mitch McConnell is (and his unfavorables consistently outpoll his favorables), Barack Obama is disliked even more in conservative Kentucky.
“Senator,” she shouted at the rowdy Fancy Farm picnic crowd over the weekend, “you seem to think the president is on the ballot this year. He’s not. This race is between me and you.”
McConnell mentioned Grimes only once by name at Fancy Farm; he invoked Obama’s name 10 times. Some supporters spun signs with Grimes’s face on one side and Obama’s on the other.
Grimes will try to shake loose the Obama linkage on Wednesday, as President Clinton flies into eastern Kentucky, coal country that once represented a Democratic stronghold in the state but where Obama’s disapproval hit nearly 70 percent in a recent poll.
In other red-state Senate contests this year, Democrats are using the advantage of incumbency to try to craft an image distinct from Obama and the national Democratic brand (even as a barrage of pro-GOP TV ads try to tie them together).
In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan is running ads touting herself as the senator with the most moderate voting record. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu talks about her potential influence as chair of the Energy Committee. In Arkansas and Alaska, Sens. Mark Pryor and Mark Begich are leaning on their political family names.
And in West Virginia, another Appalachian state that has turned sharply against the Democrats in the Obama era, the Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant has sought to separate herself from the national party by airing a TV ad in which she literally turns off the lights at the White House.
Grimes hasn’t taken such a public step, perhaps fearing it would turn off the spigot of national Democratic money pouring into her coffers. She raised $4 million in the second quarter of 2014 — more money than any other Senate candidate in the country, including incumbents.
Republicans say Grimes isn’t using her record to define herself because she doesn’t have one.
“She doesn’t talk about her résumé or her positions because she doesn’t have any,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist for a super PAC and affiliated nonprofit that has filled the airwaves with anti-Grimes and pro-McConnell ads. “You can’t make a cake with no batter.”
At Fancy Farm, McConnell, 72, likened the record of Grimes, who is 35 and was elected as secretary of state in 2011, to Obama’s, of course.
“He was only two years into his first big job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said. “”¦I mean, he really didn’t have any qualifications. Sound familiar? Every time his inexperience became obvious, old Bill Clinton would show up to distract us. Sound familiar?”
When Grimes first entered the race, her lack of a political history was seen as an asset. Democrats said running a tabula rasa candidate would allow them to hone in on McConnell’s unpopularity, especially compared with Ashley Judd, the actress who briefly flirted with running and who had promised to become the focal point of the campaign.
And it’s true that McConnell’s vaunted opposition-research team has yet to uncover, or at least push out, anything as devastating as the hits they had lined up for his tea-party primary opponent, Matt Bevin.
As Clinton arrives in Kentucky on Wednesday, Grimes has successfully driven the conversation of the campaign of late. The McConnell camp has been forced to respond to each of Grimes’s recent television ads, including releasing an ad Tuesday with McConnell’s wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, responding to suggestions that her husband isn’t supportive of women.
“Alison Lundergan Grimes’s gender-based attacks are desperate and false,” Chao says in the ad.
But those are small skirmishes in the broader Senate fight. The bigger battle is about establishing who voters will be thinking about when they enter the booth in November: Mitch McConnell or Barack Obama.
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