In Kentucky, McConnell challenger Grimes embraces political upside of her gender

The Post's Chris Cillizza explains how Alison Lundergan Grimes used her victory speech in the Kentucky Senate race to position herself against her opponent, minority leader Mitch McConnell. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

Alison Lundergan Grimes says it everywhere she goes. She said it at dozens of stops in Kentucky over the past week. She said it at her victory speech here Tuesday night after securing the Democratic nomination for Senate. And she plans to say it again all the way to November. She’s not an “empty dress.”

Ever since a Republican strategist used the insult months ago to belittle the 35-year-old Grimes, she has made it a rallying point in her quest to dislodge the Senate’s GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, from the Kentucky seat he has held for three decades.

Her point is not subtle. Grimes, unabashedly embracing the political upside of her gender, is suggesting that McConnell, 72, is not taking this female challenger (or other women) as seriously as he should.

“I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp, and I am not a cheerleader,” she said in a speech Tuesday night after she and McConnell each easily defeated primary opponents and officially began what is shaping up to be one of the year’s most heated political battles.

Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, aims to introduce herself anew to voters Wednesday with a minute-long television spot featuring her speaking into the camera. She is trying to accentuate the differences between herself and McConnell, a dark-suited Washington player more than twice her age who could become Senate majority leader if he beats Grimes and the GOP gains six seats in the chamber in November.

Meet Oregon Republican Monica Wehby, Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn and Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. They are the latest women to win their primaries and are vying to join the growing contingent of women in the Senate. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

Grimes’s focus on her gender follows years of efforts by other female candidates who have sought ways to be their authentic selves while also setting aside concerns that some voters might have about electing women to jobs traditionally held by men.

For Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, that meant adopting a tough, all-business persona and wearing pantsuits. For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it has been a kind of well-heeled feminist. Two other Democratic women running for Senate this year — Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Mary Landrieu, who is seeking reelection in Louisiana — are talking about their famous family ties.

Grimes’s approach, in contrast, may most closely resemble that of Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, who made a splash by showcasing herself as a lipstick-wearing hockey mom, unafraid of tangling with her male adversaries.

Last year, Grimes, who has been a kickboxing instructor, tweeted a picture of herself wearing a tank top and jeans and wielding a rifle. After McConnell received an award from the National Rifle Association, Grimes wrote: “Whenever he’s not busy pandering to DC lobbyists, I welcome Sen. McConnell to come shoot with me at the range any day.”

Grimes used similarly confrontational rhetoric in her speech Tuesday night, noting McConnell’s past efforts to talk about President Obama on the campaign trail. “Senator McConnell,” she said sternly, “this race is between you and me.”

Signaling the bitter fight ahead, Grimes criticized McConnell during her speech for “30 years of failed leadership,” portraying him as out of touch with economically struggling Kentucky.

Of all the differences, though, she has most emphasized gender.

Often appearing in a brightly colored dress, Grimes repeatedly refers to her wardrobe in her campaign addresses, even talking about her high heels. She calls herself a “strong Kentucky woman” or an “independent Kentucky woman” and, as she did Tuesday night, describes her grandmother as “one of the fiercest Kentucky women I know.”

In speech after speech, Grimes cites her support for equal pay and says McConnell is “on the wrong side of every women’s issue.”

Female voters seen as key

Women, who are expected to make up the majority of the Kentucky electorate this year, are considered by both sides as decisive in the race. McConnell split their vote in his 2008 reelection, but polls show Grimes leading among women this year with the overall race a dead heat.

McConnell has responded by enlisting his wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao, to describe him in loving terms and defend his record in television ads and speeches.

He emphasized women in his victory speech Tuesday, praising Chao as the “only Kentucky woman in history to be a member of a president’s Cabinet.” He also credited his mother for his determination and tenacity. And when McConnell attacked Obama’s health-care law, he did so by citing the complaints of three women — one the mother of five girls. “All these women have something in common,” he said. “They got a raw deal.”

McConnell demonstrated that he might prefer to run against other men — Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Obama, perhaps even Grimes’s father, former state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan — than focus on his toe-to-toe matchup with Grimes.

“A vote for my opponent is a vote for a guy who says coal makes you sick,” McConnell said, referring to Reid’s support for environmental regulations that many lawmakers from Kentucky and coal-producing states decry as harmful to the industry. Grimes, too, has criticized the Obama administration on the issue.

In a reference to the role of Lundergan, McConnell described Grimes as “a partisan’s partisan who’s been practicing partisan politics since she learned to talk.”

In a race expected to draw tens of millions of dollars in attack ads targeting each candidate, much of the early effort on the right will be aimed at defining Grimes, who is far less known than McConnell.

A new spot from McConnell allies depicts Grimes on a red carpet with superimposed images of the Obamas and her “liberal Hollywood” supporters. “Liberals coast to coast are rolling out the red carpet for Alison Grimes,” the announcer says at the start of the ad. “Where’s Alison Grimes on the issues? Just look at her friends.”

Standing strong in heels

In her appearances, Grimes speaks with an authoritative tone and often leads call-and-response chants with crowds. She attributes her determination to her “mama,” and she takes the stage for her speeches with speakers blasting Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

“This is a Kentucky woman through and through, who proudly wears a dress,” she said at one of her final stops along a statewide bus tour that culminated with Tuesday’s primary.

She paused, looked down at her strawberry-red outfit, and let the crowd of a few dozen supporters whoop and holler at the inside joke. “[One] who thinks on her own, who has an independent mind but does what is best for the people of this state.”

She wasn’t done talking about what she was wearing.

“I have stood strong in these heels,” she said shortly after her speech in a brief interview inside her bus. “I’ve run circles around [McConnell] in this state in my heels, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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