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For Grimes, running against McConnell on women’s issues is complicated

Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks to a group of supporters during a rally Sunday at the University of Louisville. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

This weekend, Kentucky’s Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, will take the stage at the annual Fancy Farm event, a giant picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., that has the feel of a family reunion and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience. Her opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R), will also be there, and their dueling speeches will be a great look (2:30 on Saturday on C-SPAN) at how these candidates are framing their arguments in the last weeks of summer campaigning. They have been engaged in a debate about where and when to debate, but in the meantime, this will be the next best thing.

The polls have shown a tight race, with Grimes, who is Kentucky’s secretary of state, barely ahead in some tallies, and McConnell barely ahead in others.  While it’s too early to know almost anything about this race, what is clear is that women voters will be crucial to the outcome, and the fight for those voters will be very unique to Kentucky.

Grimes obviously knows this, as she has wrapped her campaign in what we’ve called “blue collar feminism,” name-checking other strong women in her life, particularly her grandmother, and running on a slate of issues that will appeal to women, like equal pay and a higher minimum wage.

There was this riff from her nomination acceptance speech back in May:

Now, Mitch McConnell, he wants to tell you who I am, and he claims that Kentucky will be lost if we trade in his seat for a Kentucky woman who he believes will sit on the back bench. Well I’m here to tell you tonight my fellow Kentuckians, I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp, and I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman who is an independent thinker who, when I am Kentucky’s next United States senator, the decisions I make will be what’s best for the people of the commonwealth of Kentucky, not partisan interests.

And now, there is this ad, which criticizes McConnell for voting against the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was reauthorized and strengthened last year:

It’s a great ad, featuring a real person from an important demographic.  But there’s a problem with it.  It cherry picks McConnell’s record on VAWA.  Granted, 30-second campaign spots aren’t meant to be complicated recitations of an issue, or even a complete picture.  They are instead meant to be memorable, to make a point, and to make voters pay attention.  On that score, Grimes wins.

But this ad, featuring a woman named Ilene Woods from Lynch, Ky., who asks McConnell why he voted against VAWA twice and equal pay for women, has also been reviewed by and found lacking. McConnell was one of the original sponsors of the Violence Against Women Act and has voted for different versions of the bill over the last years, including re-authorization in 2000 and 2005.

“Senator McConnell has been a leader throughout his career on combating domestic violence, including on the very law her ridiculous Obama-inspired attack ad is citing,” said Allison Moore, a McConnell campaign spokesman in an e-mail to She The People.

On equal pay, McConnell, like other Republicans has said that current laws mandate equal pay for equal work, and that having more laws means more litigation and fat cat lawyers. As the fact-check concludes, McConnell’s positions on these two issues are a matter of debate, and it’s a point that he will no doubt make whenever he faces Grimes.

For its part, the Grimes campaign is trying to turn McConnell’s long voting record and recent comments about women into gaffes that could boost Grimes’s support among women.

“Mitch McConnell has finally confessed to why he voted against equal pay for equal work for women — he doesn’t think a pay gap is a barrier worth lowering,” said Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst. “Perhaps that’s also his reasoning behind voting against the Violence Against Women Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Unlike Mitch McConnell, Alison wants to remove all barriers for women, not just settle for claiming most are lowered.”

The ad and the pitch to women voters also point to this — McConnell hasn’t done poorly among women voters.  In 2008, he won women voters by one percentage point over his Democratic challenger, Bruce Lunsford.

The most recent polls show Grimes up with women voters by seven points in one poll and only one point in another.  The challenge she has going forward is whether she can create a double-digit spread and post the kind of numbers that other Democrats have enjoyed with women, particularly single women.  The question is, in Kentucky, a conservative state, how does Grimes do that and juggle coal, religious, cultural and business interests all at once? Differences on minimum wage and health care will certainly be part of her argument. But McConnell will likely have a comeback on VAWA that muddies Grimes claims.

What Republicans are discovering is that running a female candidate is no guarantee for closing the gender gap.  And in Kentucky, Democrats are discovering that running a woman is no guarantee for a runaway gender gap.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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