Grimes of our Times

Lookout, Mitch

If this debut video is a sign of anything, Alison Lundergan Grimes is going to give Mitch McConnell all he can handle.

If you haven’t seen the video by Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat who is challenging Mitch McConnell, please give it a gander as soon as you can. It is amazingly good. Smart. It’s really smart on several levels. The smart money in July 2013 says she’ll make a nice run but in the end Mitch will outmuscle her and win by seven or so points. But I see intelligence in this video that suggests that just maybe in this case, the smart money won’t be so smart.

She opens sitting at the dining room table where she evidently sat for an apparently memorable ad with her two grandmothers when she ran for secretary of state in 2012. This ad was unknown to me, obviously (it is shown within this new video), but I presume it will have been known to Kentuckians. The two old ladies are feisty and charming in a way that feels natural and unrehearsed; they're like the two ladies who always have audiences gathered around them slapping their knees down at the V.F.W. pancake breakfast.

In the old, 2012 ad, they’re both sitting in front of laptops. Excellent touch. Something in there for young people to relate to. And one of them is at a PC, the other a Mac! Somebody was thinking about that one.

Now we come back to the present. The Mac grandma is gone. She died, the candidate says, shortly after filming the commercial, at 92. On paper, this sounds sappy, because right now in your mind you are making assumptions about how this was filmed and the words she speaks that you know from every other political ad like this you’ve seen. But this one has a different quality. The words aren’t as lachrymose, the background music not as syrupy. There is still an air here of getting down to business.

And then, business comes. The living grandma fades out of the picture, and Lundergan Grimes starts talking about McConnell. She makes the usual appeal for comity and then says: “But that’s not happening in Washington today, and Senator McConnell is the biggest part of the problem. He’s wasted decades blocking legislation that would have helped Kentucky and our country, and it’s over the last few years that he’s done it for the worst of reasons—out of spite. I don’t always agree with the president. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put the good of our people ahead of the bad that comes from acting petty and small. Together, we can change that.”

Then, a little later: “This part’s for you, Senator McConnell.” She next hits some specific attack points: “voting to double Medicare premiums” on Kentucky seniors, “including our retired coal miners”; supporting defense contractors buying parts overseas; voting against several measures to help women; and voting against increasing the minimum wage “over and over again, while you became a multimillionaire in public office.” And finally: “We’ll have this debate, senator. And as you’ve probably already seen, I don’t scare easy.”

From top to bottom, the words here are just right. Notice how very little of the above is cliché. It’s tough—McConnell is the “biggest” part of the problem, he’s wasted decades, he acts out of spite. It’s really grounded and firm—she doesn’t sound like somebody saying what her consultant told her to say. I was on TV the other day with a Democratic candidate in Iowa, poor fellow, who just couldn’t get off the script, sounded terrified of saying something wrong on national television. Lundergan Grimes sounds like someone who has busted out of those chains and can think for herself, and on her feet.

Challenging a long-time incumbent requires the pressing of certain subliminal buttons in a way that’s subtle enough so it doesn’t seem like a direct attack but clear enough for people to get the message. The message this video seems to convey is: Mitch has become a little embarrassing. Not too ideological. A Democrat running in Kentucky shouldn’t say that. Not “been in Washington too long and out of touch.” He isn’t really out of touch, and that isn’t his Achilles Heel. That he’s become embarrassing might be. Like I said—very smart.

She launches her campaign Tuesday. It’s going to be a long and very ugly campaign. But remember, McConnell has a right-wing primary opponent, a guy who can self-finance, apparently. McConnell will undoubtedly be forced to make commitments during the primary that she can used against him later. I realize this is just one video. But on the evidence it presents, I’d say he’s going to have his hands very full indeed.