Even Bill Clinton Can’t Make the Kentucky Senate Race About Alison Lundergan Grimes

This heated contest has become a battle between Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama, not the Democrat on the ticket.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes campaigns in advance of the state's Democratic primary May 19, 2014 at Lakeview Park in Frankfort, Kentucky. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 6, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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