LEXINGTON, Kentucky — When Alison Lundergan Grimes first announced that yes, she was going after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat next year, it wasn’t only Team Mitch that derided her piddly, off-the-cuff, ‘OK, I’m in’ campaign launch earlier this month. Even one Democratic consultant called that effort “one of the worst rollouts ever.”
Of course, I never met a single voter who said, “That campaign announcement 18 months ago was so unpolished, I’m going with the other guy.” But just in case, Tuesday’s event marking her official entry into the race was as spashy as the first try was slapdash. McConnell “kept saying, ‘Where’s her big, fancy rollout?’ ” said Jonathan Hurst, a senior adviser to Lundergan Grimes. “Well, here it is.”
Yup, produced to perfection — who’ll have some sweet tea? — and featuring a video endorsement from her dad’s old buddy Bill Clinton: “I’ve known Alison a long time,” Clinton says in it, “and have seen her develop” — an ill-timed pause for breath just then drew some heh-heh titters from reporters — “into a secretary of state who’s smart and strong, passionate and effective, and Kentucky through and through.”
While McConnell has a real challenger in Republican Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, Grimes is expected to breeze past her three primary opponents, and is already pitching to swing voters. Which is why, if we’d swigged Kentucky Bourbon every time someone on stage said “reach across the aisle,” I’m not sure how many in the crowd would have been left standing. “We’ve got to have more people willing to reach across the aisle,” the former POTUS said. “Alison wants to do that, and is capable of doing it…You can win,” he said with conviction. “You can win.”
Maybe she can, too; though still favored, McConnell is vulnerable, even if a Republican county chairman I happen to be related to summed up the race this way: “Whether you like Mitch or not, Kentucky would be stupid to vote him out, because he’s the top dog up there.”
Yet that Grimes is young and a woman are widely seen as positives for the 34-year-old, who was only elected secretary of state in 2010. For one thing because that makes it trickier for McConnell be his usual, merciless-in-campaign-mode self without looking like the bully his detractors already say he is.
I mean, how can rough can you be on a woman introduced by her adorable grandma, Elsie Case, who appeared in the folksy “What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?” ad during her campaign three years ago. (Yes, the one mocked in the recent McConnell ad that only boosted her name ID, and came off as some mighty gratuitous grandma-bashing.)
“What rhymes with Mitch?” Grandma Elsie asked the crowd here. (Correct answer: Switch. Or ditch.) Her Alison, she said, is “going to be the first female United States Senator this state has ever had!”
Then her granddaughter arrived in a spiffy campaign bus and took the stage hand-in-hand with Gov. Steve Beshear — who supported her opponent three years ago. She stepped to the microphone to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman.” (“She get to know you, she gonna own you…”) And she certainly didn’t look or sound like a rookie as she took after McConnell as someone who “has literally gone Washington. He has let Kentucky and his people fall behind.”
“My world has been Kentucky, and it is everything to me,” she said, hitting all the required notes. “I learned growing up that you never forget the coal miners, you never forget the mothers, you never forget the veterans.” The miners and vets were carefully represented in the crowd, and the mothers must have been, too, because the biggest applause came when the candidate said she’d fight for equal pay for women.
In a switch from the usual protestations, she acknowledged her ambition, and even said she’d been raised for public office: “This is what I was born to do,” she said, adding that she’d been “fighting every day” of her life to give a voice to the voiceless, never eating Thanksgiving dinner until after she’d served hundreds of less fortunate Kentuckians and fighting for victims of domestic violence as a lawyer.
In response, McConnell’s campaign called her “an ambitious but unproven liberal who will be more beholden to President Obama and his financial backers than the citizens she hopes to represent.”
So, what’s her plan to distance herself from the president and what McConnell calls his “war on coal”? On Tuesday, she told the crowd she disagrees with Obama’s energy policy and thinks that spending can be cut and that the Affordable Care Act needs some work. But really, the strategy boils down to two words: Bill Clinton, the last Democratic nominee to carry Kentucky, both in ’92 and ’96. “Her family’s close to the Clintons,” says Hurst, her adviser. “She’s a Clinton Democrat, and people know that.”
The campaign said there were some 1,600 people at the event, which was held at the Carrick House, a historic downtown home turned party venue owned by the candidate’s family. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, a former state representative who was twice Kentucky’s Democratic Party chairman, also served as the state chairman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and his company catered Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, too.
Years ago, in 1989, Lungergan was accused of snagging a no-bid contract with the state for his catering company — lawmakers are barred from such deals, which he didn’t disclose — and was convicted of the improper use of influence. Recently, he made the news for contributing to New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, whose desire to serve hasn’t quieted his desire to distribute pictures of his penis.
But it’s McConnell’s behavior that’s the issue in this crowd, where the incumbent is described as a Washingtoncentric roughneck who intimidates people just to keep his skills up, is consumed by Obama hatred and has failed by his own measure — at his stated top objective of making the president a one-termer.
“He’s nothing but an obstructionist,” said Clyde Arnold, a 91-year-old World War II veteran and retired minister.
“He’s self-serving,” said 67-year-old Janice Rucker, a former day care and home care provider who drove from Louisville for the event.
Democratic state representative Martha Jane King hopes her state is “ready for a fresh face” and weary enough of the kind of partisanship that keeps business from getting done to give her friend Lundergan Grimes a serious look.
When they do, she says, they’ll see that “she’s always the same — no different in person than in politics.”
Jack Rose, a former school superintendent who describes himself as a “very conservative Democrat,” expects the race to be “uphill all the way” because her opponent is “the dirtiest campaigner ever.”
Still, he feels she’s got a shot: “She’s vibrant. She’s very, very bright. And her daddy is a very good friend of Bill Clinton.”