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)

For Democrats anxious about preserving their Senate majority in a difficult midterm election year, Bill Clinton on Tuesday suggested a path forward: Defend the health-care law, recommit to a populist theme of increasing wages and economic growth, and go after the super PACs flooding the airwaves with negative ads.

The former president made his first campaign stop of 2014 here in Kentucky to boost the candidacy of Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Clinton protég é and family friend who is running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).

President Obama and his signature health-care law are deeply unpopular in this state. But Clinton strongly defended the legislation, acknowledging that it is complicated but arguing that it has given more people in Kentucky access to affordable health care and lowered their costs.

He also repeatedly praised Gov. Steve Beshear (D), a leading proponent of the law, and laid blame on McConnell and other Republicans for creating what Clinton called “constant conflict.”

“You know what in a sane environment people do when they have problems?” Clinton said. “They fix the problems. In the end, that’s really what Alison’s saying: ‘Send me to Washington, I’ll do something that makes sense, and I’ll fix it.’ The other choice is to just pout . . . and make as many problems as you can, stop anything good from happening — and if you can’t stop it, at least bad-mouth it.”

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But Grimes never mentioned the health-care law in her nearly 30-minute speech, nor did she reference Obama. Instead, she spoke nostalgically about the Clinton presidency, summing up those eight years as “goodbye, recession; hello, prosperity.”

Today, she said, “Washington is broken and dysfunctional. . . . It’s not progress and prosperity that we see; it’s obstruction and gridlock.”

Grimes said that, like Clinton in 1992, she can bring “a new Southern face of leadership” to the nation’s capital.

Later, in an interview, Grimes said Obama and other Democrats also bear some blame for the paralysis. “I think there’s enough to go around for all parties that are there,” she said, although she added that McConnell is “at the center of that dysfunction.”

Clinton is popular in Kentucky, where his Arkansas roots, deep friendships, and love of college basketball and horse racing help him connect with voters who otherwise turn away from national Democrats. Clinton was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the Bluegrass State, which he carried twice. Obama’s approval rating here stands in the mid-30s.

But McConnell said Tuesday that Clinton’s popularity has not always transferred to other candidates. “I welcome him back to Kentucky,” the minority leader told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Every time he’s come, it’s been really good for me.”

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a statement that “it’s going to take a lot more than Bill Clinton dropping by to reminisce about the good ol’ days to get Kentuckians to cast a ballot for the Obama agenda by supporting Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

In his remarks, Clinton delved into the economic agenda that Democrats hope can carry them through November’s midterm elections. Raising the minimum wage is at the top of that list, he said, and he held up a copy of Grimes’s jobs plan as proof that she has substantive ideas.

Clinton said the growing gap between the rich and the poor is “self-defeating” and becoming “a severe limit” on economic growth nationwide, including in rural Kentucky.

“Americans don’t resent people who make money, but what we do resent is the unfairness of a system that depends on holding people’s incomes down,” he said.

Grimes and Clinton both used McConnell as a foil, with Grimes noting that McConnell has become a multimillionaire during his 29 years in the Senate and Clinton pointing out that many of the Republican’s key supporters are millionaires and billionaires.

“He got all this money from all these guys who don’t ever want anything to change and haven’t noticed that, adjusted for inflation, median family income in Kentucky and in America is lower today than it was the day I left office,” Clinton said.

Clinton angrily sounded off about the millions of dollars that pro-Republican super PACs are spending on attack ads in Kentucky and other key battleground states. He said the ads ultimately could discourage practical voters from going to the polls in November, resulting in a more ideologically rigid electorate.

“Politics is not rocket science,” Clinton said. “It’s either creative cooperation or constant conflict. It’s either a focus on people or a focus on keeping yourself in power by keeping the people so torn up and upset that they can’t think anymore.”

He continued, “You cannot run a hateful television ad and put a single mother to work or raise [her] income.”

Clinton intends to campaign this year for Democrats across the nation, including, as in past election years, stops in conservative states where hostility to Obama runs high but where Clinton is relatively popular. Clinton is certain to be a frequent visitor to his native Arkansas, where several longtime friends and political allies will be on the ballot in November, including Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who has a difficult path to reelection, and former congressman Mike Ross (D), who is running for governor.

Clinton chose Kentucky as his 2014 debut in part because Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan, has been a close friend of Clinton’s since the 1980s. Lundergan has served as a key fundraiser and political fixer for both of Clinton’s presidential campaigns, as well as for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Clinton’s appearance in downtown Louisville, at a luncheon attended by 1,200 people, raised more than $600,000, according to the Grimes campaign.

When a Washington Post reporter asked when Clinton would return to Kentucky, Lundergan simply winked and said, “Whenever I call.”