What Mitch McConnell and a twice-heated biscuit have in common

February 26, 2014

Shortly after wrapping up her event with former President Bill Clinton, Kentucky Senate Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sat down with me in Louisville to talk about why she thinks she can beat Sen, Mitch McConnnell this fall, how Obamacare is playing in the state and how Hillary Clinton inspired her to run. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.  

The Washington Post: You talked a lot about the partisan gridlock and dysfunction that you see in Washington. I know you were talking about Sen. McConnell and the congressional Republicans, but I’m wondering if you think President Obama shares any of that blame – if the environment in Washington is at all because of him or his approach or his policies, too.

Alison Lundergan Grimes: As we saw, especially with the filibuster reform, there is enough finger-pointing to go around for a lifetime with what has occurred in Washington, D.C. But Kentuckians are tired of the finger-pointing. They want somebody that actually comes up with a pathway forward as to how they’re going to have faith again in the future of Kentucky and the promises of being an American and being able to grow the middle class. That’s what our campaign is about. It’s not the blame game and the finger-pointing that Mitch McConnell has become a master at. It’s actually making sure that we’re tackling the problems of the people of the state.


This is a biscuit. Photo by Dayna Smith For the Washington Post

Post: But is the blame for that environment solely on the Republicans in Congress or is it Sen. Harry Reid as well, and is it President Obama?

Grimes: I think there’s enough to go around for all parties that are there. I think, though, that after 29 years, Mitch McConnell is at the center of that dysfunction. When you pride yourself on being called the ‘Doctor of No’ and the ‘Guardian of Gridlock,’ you have lost sight of what matters in this state, and that’s the people.

Post: On health care, you heard President Clinton talk a little bit about it and give a pretty forceful defense of the law and how it’s gotten more affordable health care for more people in Kentucky. Do you share the views that he laid out? You didn’t mention health care in your remarks.

Grimes: Well, it’s still being implemented here in Kentucky. I think what we have seen is that under the leadership of our governor, we are leading the nation in terms of our state-based exchange, Kynect, and Medicaid expansion. The focus has been the 640,000 people that now have access, and here in Kentucky over 230,000 are already enrolled. For me, I think the primary way that we grow the middle class, that we help to give people the promise of a brighter future, it starts and begins with the minimum wage. That’s what you heard me speak about first. Did you guys get a copy of the jobs plan?

Post: Yes, and President Clinton held it up.

Grimes: Yes! He did. Totally unexpected, unrehearsed. Afterwards, I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Because I believe in it.’ This is a plan that is about having maximum impact for the people across this state. We’re obviously hopeful for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but we need a definite, determined pathway for success for the people of Kentucky, and it begins by increasing the minimum wage. You heard me talk about the statistics that the Kentucky Economic Policy Institute has put forth today – one in four Kentuckians, that’s nothing to shy away from or to shirk at, as Mitch McConnell does. Increasing over $2,300 annually for their pay, 2,200 good-paying jobs – something that we must take into account. And obviously women, another big factor, in that when you close the pay equity gap that is there right now.

Post: What would you do differently on health care if you were elected?

Grimes: We have, for the past I guess eight months, talked about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As the chief business officer here in the state, I have a full-time job, people forget that, as secretary of state. It’s watching over the elections, it’s watching over all of the businesses that operate here in Kentucky. I’ve had my concerns with how we implement it. Unlike Mitch McConnell, that has no alternate plan or proposals, I’ve said we need to make sure that we are watching out for the impacts that are being felt, especially on our small businesses, with the implementation. We need to streamline that. We need to make sure the employer mandate, which was delayed – I advocated for the delay of it. I believe it’s a good thing, give our employers time to actually incentivize, to provide coverage instead of cutting hours – or worse, employees. And the first amongst I know challengers, but I believe incumbents as well, to call for the extension of the grandfathering clause. All things that when Washington politicians make promises that if you like your plan and your doctor you can keep it, we live up to. These are things that we must do to make sure that we’re staying true to the American people and the promises that Washington has made.

Post: I know Secretary Hillary Clinton talked to you a little bit before you decided to get into this race. Is she a role model to you and can you tell me what she said or what she’s advised you about this campaign?

Grimes: Those are obviously private conversations, but I can say this: The entire Clinton family has been and continues to be friends and mentors to myself since I was but 14 years old. We have come a long way in Kentucky, but there’s still a long way left to go, especially as well in the nation. The fact that I am currently the only female constitutional statewide officer that we have is something that needs improvement. The fact that we’ve never had a female United States Senator before needs improvement. I’m in this race because I don’t want to be the only one. I hope that we continue to make strides together in the future, especially inspiring future women to come up. Hillary Clinton has made a lot of cracks in that glass ceiling and it’s not yet shattered, and that’s what Kentucky is living proof of. A lot of work and strides have been made, but more work is left to be done.

She first and foremost wanted to make sure that the decision I made as any individual has to make when they’re trying to get into a race, especially a woman, was right for me and my husband and what was in our heart. You get into a race for two reasons: the facts are there to win it, and we discussed those facts. We believed that as you see with the trend of energy and excitement that is going with this race in terms of the field work we’re doing, the people we’re bringing out for a lunchtime event, the dollars that we are able to bring in the door to get our message out, that we are excelling. We have to stay focused on that. And she wanted to make sure that not only did we cover the facts part, which we did, but the family part as well. I respect her for that. She is a wife and a mother and she definitely has adopted me as a second daughter if you will, watching out for me the same way my momma does.

Post: The facts – it’s going to be hard to win this race. Sen. McConnell has been in office for 29 years now. He destroys his opponents; he has a history of that. How much fight is it going to take for you to win this?

Grimes: We faced $6 million in negative, nasty ads already. We’re still standing. And 12 polls deep into this showing that despite the millions he’s spent and the funding we haven’t yet spent, the race continues to be a complete and total toss-up. I’m the third of five girls, so they’ve pretty much prepared me for anything he’s going to bring my way, but it’s about realizing who we’re fighting for. Each day when I put my feet on the ground and my heels on, it’s about kicking butt for the people of this state – especially the women. They deserve to have finally an advocate, someone who is working for them instead of against them. And I’m excited about the journey that we are on, the impact we have already made and the strides that we’re going to continue to make.

We’re eight months out, but the gates are open, we’re going around the track and we are focused on that final homestretch, making sure that we bring all Kentuckians out. This is the only time, politics is, that you can make a bet after the race is off. You can’t do that here in Kentucky. Once the gates open, all bets have to be placed. Politics is a little bit different. And I think what people – not just Kentucky, but the nation – are seeing is that Mitch McConnell, kind of like heating a biscuit twice, never tastes good the second time, no matter how much jam or jelly you put on it. That’s my grandmother’s saying, by the way.

He has tried to sell Kentucky, now six times over, on work he hasn’t done, on his failed leadership, and they are realizing that they are the ones that have been left in the lurch, they are the ones that have been hurt. You heard the moving story of Tanisha and Charles Booker today, a gentleman who didn’t speak up against Mitch McConnell but rather said positive comments about me. They realize and see Mitch McConnell for who he is and it’s not someone who’s been leading on behalf of Kentucky. The only job he’s been looking out for is his own. They are ready for someone that is a fresh face, a strong voice for the people of this state, and we’ve put that vision out there. It’s the jobs plan that you heard the jobs president endorse today.

Post: Lastly, if you win this election, you’re going to be serving with Rand Paul representing Kentucky. And I’m just curious, what do you think of what he’s been saying about President Clinton the last several weeks – bringing up the Monica Lewinsky affair, saying that he’s a sexual predator with women in the workplace – is that appropriate?”

Grimes: First, I think it’s when we are in the United States Senate, not if. When we are in the United States Senate, Rand Paul as a senior senator – that’s yet to be seen as well because he is trying to work in our General Assembly now to change the law so that his name can actually appear twice on the ballot for the United States Senate and possibly as president. My focus, though, is on the work that I have done and continue to do for especially the women of this state. President Clinton, his coming here to Kentucky, first stop of 2014, I dare say it will be his last. He told me he’s in it to win it with us and I’m only hopeful that he’ll be able to come back to Kentucky. We are doing the work that we need to for the people of this state – make sure that we are putting forth the ideas and plans for how we move forward.

For the comments that were offered, I will say that President Clinton’s record speaks for itself. You heard me today – after he left office, the lowest unemployment the nation’s ever seen in 30 years; paying off our debt, three-year debt pay-down, largest in American history; largest expansion in economic growth that we’ve ever seen. I’ll stack that up against anything that we’ve seen from anyone else and I can only hope that with his help and support and guidance we’ll follow in the same direction.

In one of the most closely watched Senate races of the 2014 midterms, Democrats in Kentucky look to former president Bill Clinton to drum up support for Sen. Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)
Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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