Red Fish, Blue Fish

08.02.13

How to Turn a Red State Blue

Her name is Alison Lundergan Grimes, and a new poll has her ahead of Mitch McConnell in the race for his Senate seat. Kentucky might not be so red after all, writes Michael Tomasky.

I don’t know why everyone is so shocked at yesterday’s PPP poll showing Alison Lundergan Grimes leading Mitch McConnell by 1 point, 45–44 (obviously, a statistical tie). Back in April, before anyone outside Kentucky knew who she was, she was within 4 points; and last December, also according to PPP, McConnell was leading actress Ashley Judd by just 4 points

But this isn’t just about numbers. After a quarter century of doing this, I can tell, even from the distance of Washington, that something very interesting is going on here. And readers who dismiss Kentucky as blood-red are wrong. Kentucky is not South Carolina, and Grimes can win this thing.

Let’s start with her shatteringly impressive roll-out. Last week I wrote about her Web-only announcement video, which is one of the most effective I’ve ever seen (the man behind it, for those who care about such things: Mark Putnam, a Democratic media consultant here in Washington). That showed us, in ways large and small, a campaign that was really thinking on its feet.

Now she has followed that up with an almost-equally-amazing video endorsement from Bill Clinton. Watch this. As with the first video, the script is very strong. Without mentioning McConnell, Clinton rebukes those who are “just saying no all the time for the sake of saying no.” I particularly like the way at the end, he doesn’t say “we” can win this. He says “you” can win this. He hands it back to Kentuckians. Small thing, maybe, but I think “you” enters the mind very differently than “we,” makes people feel it’s their fight, not some national, Clinton-centered battle to which they are appendages. At the same time, Clinton did carry the state twice. He’s liked and trusted.

On the ground, Grimes (or Lundergan Grimes? I don’t even know!) has been on a six-stop tour of the state and has been drawing large and enthusiastic crowds everywhere. I covered politics in New York, so 1,600 people doesn’t necessarily sound all that big to me, but the Louisville media labeled it “a number many veteran political types call record-breaking for a kickoff event.” It seems like she’s done just about everything right so far. So no, this poll isn’t lying. Jonathan Hurst, a senior adviser to the Grimes campaign, says that “in 28 years, there has never been a public poll showing Senator McConnell behind until this one.”

Now I know you’re saying two things: But he’s Mitch McConnell. And: But it’s Kentucky. Let’s address these in order.

Being Mitch McConnell means a few specific things. Chiefly it means that he will have access, sources in the state tell me, to $45 million to $50 million for this race, between his own committee and outside groups that will spend on his behalf. That’s like California or New York money. Astounding. Grimes’s team, I’m told, is hoping at best for around $30 million in combined money to her campaign and to outside groups. If that actually happens on her behalf, that’s not as big an advantage as incumbents often have.

Kentucky certainly isn’t Barack Obama country. But it’s also not Deep Dixie.

The other main thing it means to be McConnell is simply that he’s an institution, or maybe a habit—a five-term senator—and a challenger’s biggest psychological task is just to get voters out of the habit of pulling his lever. There are signs that that fruit is ripe for the picking. In that December poll showing McConnell barely beating Judd, he was also the least popular senator in the country. He’s already been spending money on TV ads (for voting that doesn’t take place until next year!), and it hasn’t gotten him anywhere in polls.

So McConnell has Achilles’ heels. And don’t forget—he’s facing a primary challenge from a Tea Party right winger, Matt Bevin, who can self-finance to a considerable extent. They’re already assassinating each other on TV, and the primary isn’t until next May. I have no idea whether Bevin can keep up with McConnell, get under his skin a little, force him to take some positions that could hurt him in a general (he’s already done that—he votes no on practically everything). Maybe he can soften McConnell up. At the least, a nearly yearlong air war between now and next May might just make voters sick of them both.

Now, let’s talk Kentucky. It certainly isn’t Barack Obama country. I grew up in West Virginia, so I know all about that. But it’s also not Deep Dixie. The Democratic enrollment advantage is still substantial—1.7 million to 1.2 million, with only 228,000 unaffiliateds (independents). Six out of seven statewide elected officials, from governor on down to auditor, are Democrats. Democrats also control the state house (not the Senate). And remember, there are cities in the state. Louisville is heavily Democratic. Lexington in 2010 elected an openly gay mayor. All is not lost, friends.

Now, it’s different sending a Democrat to Washington than sending one to Frankfort, and this, I think, is where Grimes is really going to have to be savvy. McConnell is obviously going to tie Obama around her neck six different ways. She’s going to have to keep her distance from him. But she can also make the case, as she did very smartly in that debut video, that however grim a view one takes of Obama, McConnell has simply passed a point of no return on his obstructionism, and that’s the real problem. And if Clinton is willing to hit the state regularly, he can cancel out a lot of the Obama weight.

The two are going to share a stage Saturday at a big Kentucky political event called Fancy Farm Picnic. Each will speak for about six minutes. Hurst told me that on off years such as this one, very few political people even go to the event. They’re going this year, and Grimes is the reason why. This is a real race.