Things got heated in the gathering area behind the workshop of Guthrie Farms in Western Kentucky.
Not when Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes heard repeated concerns about regulations forcing farmers to take care of “the Mexicans” or after the laughter subsided when she was asked if she believed in “Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve.”
No, the real action was last December when the University of Kentucky Wildcats lost their annual battle with the University of Louisville Cardinals. There were three Cardinals fans in the room, a spot in deep rural Western Kentucky where folks meet to play cards.
One man got so mad he kicked a chair, not an uncommon occurrence during basketball season in Kentucky.
This year’s game promises to be intense.
Unless Grimes starts showing improvement and confidence as a candidate soon, that game and the Kentucky Derby might be the only top-notch competition the Bluegrass State has to offer over the next year.
Last Friday at the roundtable in Mayfield, Grimes was less than 10 miles from where the state’s annual Fancy Farm picnic takes place. It was there—just a month after getting in the race, first with what was described as “one of the worst rollouts ever” and then with a Bill Clinton-assisted mulligan—that Grimes gave national Democrats reason to smile.
She handled herself well, delivered some memorable one-liners at McConnell’s expense and didn’t fall to pieces the way most 34-year-olds running their first federal campaigns might.
As Grimes made introductions on Friday far back from the highway and off a gravel road, she revisited that glory day after one of the men noted they had met before, at the picnic.
“We made that little line famous, that if Mitch McConnell had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it. Right here in Graves County,” Grimes said.
Unfortunately for her and national Democrats drooling at the thought of knocking off the man who made making President Barack Obama a one-term president his top priority, that was the high point of the campaign so far.
Grimes has largely stayed hidden from public view, traveling extensively for fundraisers and largely running a stand-in campaign with relative political newcomer and press secretary Charly Norton lobbing the endless, aimless attacks at McConnell.
She has checked some Democratic candidate boxes, e.g., accepting the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, and done a number of similar roundtable events like the one last Friday but generally without press.
The campaign, such as it is, has hinged on Norton’s press releases that include charges against McConnell ranging from his engaging in a “backroom deal”—meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate over the deal that ended the federal government shutdown and extended the debt ceiling—and being a Kentucky senator only 50 percent of the time because of his leadership role.
When asked Friday if Democrat, Kentuckian and former Senate Minority Whip Wendell Ford, or one-time vice president and former Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were only serving their states 50 percent of the time, Grimes said, “I will tell you that in the 28 years that Mitch McConnell has been in Washington, D.C., it is out of his own mouth that he says he has two jobs: One, the job that the people in Kentucky elected him to, the other his leadership position … This is a race that I’m running because Kentuckians are tired of a part-time senator. They want someone who instead of dedicating 50 percent of their time is fully focusing on 100 percent of their time making sure that Kentuckians have a voice in the United States Senate.”
To ease any concerns Kentuckians might have, Grimes told the Madisonville Messenger she wouldn’t be “running for any leadership position” if she’s elected to the Senate. That would’ve been a neat trick for a freshman.
On the major issues, Grimes has either been missing or firing off press releases that require both multiple readings and multiple head scratches.
While the disastrous rollout of Obama’s health care law has dominated national news for weeks, Kentucky’s version, behind the energetic and well-publicized efforts of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, has been one of the few bright spots for the law, though Republicans are quick to note that it has been far from smooth sailing and most of the enrollees are signing up for Medicaid.
After a few attempts akin to pulling teeth, Grimes appeared within the last three weeks to come out in favor of the Affordable Care Act after several weeks of hinting at a position including a one-year delay of the employer mandate and a repeal of the medical devices tax.
Yes, those were two positions Republicans offered in their showdown with the president over the shutdown.
In an interview with WKYT’s Kentucky Newsmakers in late October, the first local interview Grimes had done after chatting with The Huffington Post, The Hill, and Elle Magazine among others, she came out in favor of the law. Sorta.
The interview came the night after Obama apologized on NBC for repeatedly saying that if they liked their doctor or insurance, they would still be able to keep them under “Obamacare.”
For 280,000 Kentuckians, that proved not to be the case.
When veteran Bluegrass newsman Bill Bryant asked Grimes if the president had done the right thing by apologizing, Grimes went to great and awkward lengths to avoid mentioning Obama by name, well aware McConnell has determined that the heart of his strategy will be to make the 2014 campaign a referendum on Obama in Kentucky.
“Washington politicians made promises, not just to Kentuckians but to all Americans, that if you like your insurance plan, if you like your doctor, you should be able to keep it,” Grimes answered.
Without ever mentioning Obama by name, Grimes said she thought the 280,000 who lost their insurance should be “grandfathered in,” then she signaled that she believed repeal efforts were a waste of time.
“I think instead of Washington finger-pointing, it’s time that we actually fix what has gone through both chambers of Congress, what has gone all the way up to the Supreme Court, which was re-litigated through an entire election cycle,” Grimes said.
It wasn’t Beshear on Meet the Press, but it was a position after weeks of silence amplified by the vocal advocacy of two of the ever-redder state’s Democrats, Beshear and Rep. John Yarmuth and the endless condemnations of McConnell and the commonwealth’s junior Sen. Rand Paul.
In the most charitable light, it was improvement. And it was to a Kentucky audience. As Obama learned the hard way, no matter how much distance Democrats try to put between themselves and “Obamacare,” it’s theirs and they own it.
But there is good news for Democrats.
Chiefly, Grimes continues to excel at what might be her best asset come next November: She’s not McConnell.
The senior senator has abysmal approval ratings, and he’s facing a primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, the viability of which should come into focus more with Bevin’s end-of-year Federal Election Commission report.
McConnell has gone all-in against Bevin, using him as a proxy war against Tea Party groups like the Senate Conservative Fund that helped put Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in office.
But since that declaration, McConnell has kept his fire trained on Grimes after a week of intense and vicious attacks on Bevin. Bevin is campaigning around the state daily, but it’s nearly impossible to tell beyond anecdotal evidence if he is gaining ground.
That he has any support running a campaign that assails McConnell as a liberal speaks volumes about the level of unpopularity the senior senator is facing at home.
Polling has been sparse and always sponsored by groups with ideological leanings. But Grimes is consistently hanging in or leading and staying within the margin of error.
McConnell recently shifted to a new phase of his strategy against Grimes, pushing issues front and center, beginning with the health care law, in an attempt to either expose her as uninformed or tie her to Obama, still deeply disliked in the state.
There again, McConnell ran into a wall, this time against a state press corps that gradually has grown to despise him over the years and now does little to hide its contempt for him.
When McConnell opened his first “Obamacare” press conference recently, he offered some rare candor that might have drawn some laughs from a Washington media audience, restricting questions to health care and declaring “as you can imagine, I prefer the news of that day to be what I’d like for it to be rather than what you all may be interested in pursuing.”
It was the most discussed aspect of the press conference the rest of the week despite the fact Grimes has yet to hold one and has even gone as far as to duck Ryan Alessi, one of the state’s top political reporters, with the old talking-on-the-cell-phone trick.
The press blasted McConnell for restricting questions, bandying about the term “stakeout” McConnell used that morning even though it is a common term reporters at the White House and the U.S. Capitol use to describe where officials will go to speak after meetings.
Almost daily the national media paints McConnell as a dead man walking while Grimes has emerged through countless growing pains, growth being debatable, without a mark.
That was perhaps most clear around midnight on Sept. 10, 2013, after Obama had addressed the nation on Syria and announced his intent to seek congressional approval. Grimes blasted McConnell for staying silent on his position until he was ready to vote, but she might have been the only politician in the country still demanding to see an “exit strategy.”
Democrats who saw it cringed, Republicans were stunned, and nobody else noticed. Why would they? McConnell the hawk, after about two weeks of silence, had just voted against strikes.
When Kentuckians do hear from Grimes, in settings where there are more than a dozen people, it is fast, it is loud, and it means that somebody who works for McConnell has just done something boneheaded that has given Grimes ample opportunity to assail McConnell as a misogynist.
The most recent high-alert response from Team Grimes came the day after the Herald-Leader broke the news that Grimes was attending a fundraiser in New York with First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke of the need for a Democratic majority to pass gun control and reminded the crowd just how narrowly the president’s health care law had passed.
McConnell’s smile at the news, or barely detectable grin as is his style, could be seen from space. The ads wrote themselves.
Then the next day a conservative Kentucky blogger put a picture of Grimes’s face on the body of Amber Lee Ettinger, more commonly known in 2007 and 2008 as the “Obama girl.”
When a staffer at the National Senatorial Committee and McConnell’s political director retweeted the image, Grimes’s campaign unleashed hell on the senator for his “sexualized” attack.
McConnell’s campaign was dumbfounded. Reporters who had ignored the Michelle Obama fundraiser on Monday were calling for comment on McConnell’s misogynistic ways.
Grimes and her campaign pulled no punches, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee piled on. Neither could explain why the DSCC felt justified in describing Ettinger as “sex crazed” in its defense of Grimes.
But after National Republican Senatorial Committee staffer Brad Dayspring described Grimes as an “empty dress” in an email to The Hill newspaper during the Syria deliberations—empty dress might be the two words Grimes now says the most often—and McConnell’s votes against renewing the Violence Against Women Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, there was enough for Democrats to establish a pattern.
The following Wednesday, McConnell responded, rolling out Republican Kentucky women to blast Grimes for manufacturing outrage to avoid talking about her policy positions.
The Grimes’s campaign response to that was a press release from Norton that said in the subject line that Team McConnell said Grimes “was asking for it.”
Despite the quotes, Norton could not point to a Republican who had said the odious phrase so often associated with sexual assault. Norton called it an “idiomatic expression.”
When McConnell won re-election in 2008, he carried the women’s vote by 1 point over Democrat Bruce Lunsford, but data is sketchy and it’s nearly impossible to tell how closely women voters in Kentucky track with national trends favoring Democrats.
There is grumbling in Frankfort and Washington, at least outside of the DSCC’s press office, about the state of the Grimes campaign and concerns about the lack of growth.
Four factors have stopped Democrats from pushing the panic button: 1. It is just still way too darn early for Kentuckians to care about an election just less than a year away. 2. Grimes is avoiding any lasting damage from her missteps. 3. In national media reports, Grimes is being hailed as a strong and sturdy challenger who excels on the stump. And 4. She outraised McConnell in her first quarterly report at the end of October.
The first two are undeniable and speak to just how much time and space Grimes has in front of her to find her footing as a candidate.
The third is risky for Grimes, clearly enjoying the national media spotlight and potentially risking complacency as she and her team have looked at poll numbers in the mid to low-40s as signs of support instead of the more likely result of dislike for McConnell.
But the fourth factor was key. Grimes raised more than $2.5 million in her first quarter as a candidate, out-raising the Senate minority leader, who came up with a personal best of $2.27 million.
While the triumph was near universally pronounced as an eye-popping sign of Grimes’s strength, it too could be misleading.
First and foremost, it ignores the $10 million McConnell still has in cash despite a shocking burn rate aimed at bruising Grimes and Bevin right out of the gate. Not to mention the cozy six degrees of separation two post-Citizens United groups—McConnell’s SuperPAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads—share with McConnell, beginning with former campaign manager and longtime ally Steven Law, who holds leadership positions with both groups.
If you’re a conservative giving to Crossroads next year, your money is going to Kentucky.
Several reporters in the state said that Grimes should probably raise at least $3 million in her first quarter to show there was widespread confidence in her and to justify the time spent in money hotspots already featured in online ads, including Hollywood and Martha’s Vineyard. The NRSC set laughably high expectations of $8 million.
But when the numbers were released, the reaction in the Grimes camp—and in local and national media—was celebratory.
But there again, that celebration speaks to more pitfalls than promise. Seasoned campaigns stay steady on days like that, looking at the big tally board and going right back to work asking for money.
Imagine McConnell wasn’t in Washington the last weekend of the fundraising quarter when the clock was ticking down to a government shutdown. With his connections, it’s not a stretch to see him making up the difference the campaigns reported.
Two days after Grimes claimed just about every state and national political headline as a trophy, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey was released showing Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 43 percent with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The campaign and the DSCC sent out whatever press releases weren’t being used as confetti, and again the perception grew that Grimes was on the move.
While PPP has enjoyed a better record that most polling groups recently, it was hard to ignore questions in the survey that started with “Now that you know Mitch McConnell supported the government shutdown …”
Still, polling in the middle of a government shutdown for which Americans blamed the Republican Party actually showed that Grimes hadn’t gained on the issue at all.
The same company polling in early August released a survey that showed Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 44 percent. Despite McConnell’s leadership role in the middle of a government shutdown, Grimes had not gained any advantage.
Both the campaign and the DSCC were disgusted by that conclusion, again suggesting bias, ignoring the margin of error and cross tabs and ultimately doing Grimes no favors.
Those numbers, not impossible but optimistic, seem to have reinforced within the campaign the idea that Grimes is right to avoid issues and the media and let everyone focus on hating McConnell.
So now she stands at a crossroads. Grimes is a smart person who has projected nothing but fear and uncertainty thinly veiled with endless boasts of toughness. Smart isn’t the issue. It appears to be heart.
At the Michelle Obama fundraiser, the White House pool reporter overheard a man ask Grimes how things were going in Kentucky.
“Kickin’ butt, and takin’ names,” Grimes responded.
At the end of the week, the war on women or for women or insulting women had died down, and Grimes went to deep western Kentucky, allowing media at one event of a few she did that day.
Grimes listened and nodded as Kentucky farmers told her of the struggles they had faced over the years and the plight of farmers having to deal with the endless regulations that come with employing and housing migrant workers. She often chimed in with pertinent facts and figures.
Then Grimes demonstrated the difference between talking the talk in New York and walking the walk in Graves County.
Repeatedly she nodded and echoed the sentiments of the farmers as they discussed “the Mexicans,” despite saying just the day before that she favored a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.
“Would it in y’all’s estimation be something beneficial in the agricultural community to pass an immigration bill?” Grimes asked.
“I think we ought to take care of our own,” host Cliff Guthrie said.
Grimes, as though she had been in Washington for years, barely missed a beat while declining to share her position on immigration reform.
“Well speaking of taking care of our own, the lack of a farm bill right now, what’s going on between the House and the Senate is the cut between the supplemental nutritional assistance program, the food stamp program, I think we’ve got to balance our budget, but we do it the right way,” she said.
And on it went.
“You believe in Adam and Eve, don’t you?” Mitchell Guthrie asked.
“Is this another lesson I’m learning here?” Grimes responded.
“No, you believe in Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, don’t you?” Guthrie clarified as Grimes and the small crowd laughed. “Gay marriage. You don’t support that, do you?”
“Well, I want to be honest with you guys, and gal … my husband and I have been married seven years, and the Supreme Court has already determined in my view and decided this issue, and I’m not going to … I think that if I’ve been committed then others should be able to have that same commitment,” Grimes said. “But the Supreme Court they’ve already ruled on this, it’s a state sovereign issue, and here in the state of Kentucky we already have a constitutional amendment. … Now that’s not to say they won’t readdress it.”
When asked afterward by the Herald-Leader to clarify whether she supports same-sex marriage, Grimes said “the topic of our roundtable today was agriculture and how we move, especially a big part of our economy, in the right direction.”
“Right now it’s stalled,” Grimes said. “And you heard me express my viewpoint, which is my husband and I have been married for seven years, and I want to make sure all individuals have that same opportunity.”
She continued: “In terms of same-sex marriage, I have said, as I said here today, that I’m supportive just as my husband and I have the opportunity to have a commitment together for seven years, other individuals doing that same thing, but the Supreme Court has decided this issue and has left it to state sovereignty.”
Consider that one of the other firm positions Grimes has taken was on the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, a gay rights bill by any other name.
That answer was a lot of things, but it was neither kickin’ butt nor takin’ names.
Jacob Payne, the Kentucky blogger at PageOneKentucky.com, has taken numerous shots at Grimes’s abundance of caution. On Monday, linking to the story on Kentucky.com about Grimes, immigration, and gay marriage, Payne flatly declared Grimes “a coward on gay marriage.”
Grimes can take larger risks than a lot of Democrats—posing for a picture shooting a rifle, trying to maneuver to the right of McConnell on coal—but overt political calculation will cost her dearly in the Bluegrass State.
Her window is larger than normal because of McConnell’s primary and his negative numbers, but Grimes has some decisions to make.
Sooner than later, she will have to decide what kind of candidate she wants to be and more importantly what kind of senator she would want to be.
Not being Mitch McConnell will only get her so far.