Several weeks ago, it looked like I had made a bad bet when I picked the young, brash filly to upset the old war horse in the high-profile U.S. Senate derby in Kentucky this fall. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was ahead of his challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, by an average of 4 points in most surveys, and the polling aggregators were predicting a GOP victory with anywhere from 75 to 97 percent confidence.
Meanwhile, Grimes appeared to be losing traction in the campaign’s homestretch. News of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulling its resources away from Kentucky, as well as national liberal discontent with a tough anti-amnesty ad being run by the Grimes campaign, exacerbated what was widely reported as a game-changing gaffe by the young Democrat: Grimes’s persistent refusal to reveal her presidential votes in 2008 and 2012.
But something happened on the way to McConnell’s supposedly easy trot to the winner’s circle. Two October surveys conducted on behalf of an independent Kentucky media consortium have shown that the race is a dead heat. In the Bluegrass Poll published Monday, the Senate minority leader led his challenger by only one percentage point, 44 percent to 43 percent, well within the survey’s margin of error. And these results are wholly consistent with recent polls released by Grimes’s consultant Mark Mellman, who, while admittedly partial, boasts an enduring national reputation for objectivity and prescience.
While pinpointing the precise cause of the shift in campaign momentum is, of course, impossible, three factors would appear to have made a significant difference. First, as reported here last week, McConnell’s angry and confrontational interview with the Big Blue Nation’s most popular sports radio host may have provided some clarity to a non-political audience, the kind of independent-minded voters who can swing a close election. Second, another college basketball fan, Bill Clinton, has gone all in on behalf of the family that aggressively supported his wife’s 2008 campaign for president: The Big Dog has traveled to Kentucky three times this year on behalf of Alison, while Hillary made her first visit last week—and both have promised to return before Election Day.
But perhaps also significant has been the backlash from the very controversy that led many to predict the premature demise of Democratic chances earlier in the month. While the local media was modestly, and perhaps justifiably, critical of Grimes’s demurral when asked several times if she had voted for the über-unpopular Obama for president, the national cable screaming heads descended into full ballistic combustion, ludicrously comparing the gaffe to Todd Akin’s outrageous pregnancy theories and Christine O’Donnell’s declaration of non-witchhood. And most famously, NBC’s Chuck Todd declared that Grimes “disqualified herself” by refusing to reveal her vote.
In the brouhaha following Todd’s intemperate pronouncement, most pundits credited the Bluegrass State’s conservatism as motivation for Grimes’s distancing herself from the liberal Obama. But there’s another strain that runs through the Kentucky body politic that is perhaps even more explanatory: our visceral resentment against the Establishment. We despise snooty outsiders who try self-righteously to interpose their values on us, be they remote, exotic presidents or elitist Duke University hoopsters. As I discussed here, it’s a cultural milieu so toxic that it propelled the border state Kentucky to the Confederate cause after the Civil War ended, and more recently provided ground zero for a Tea Party movement that condemns “big government” programs that disproportionately benefit our poor citizenry.
And it would be difficult to find too many individuals who more represent the despised Washington Establishment than the moderator of Meet the Press.
So it’s no wonder that Kentucky Democrats have begun to return fire. Standing next to the former president this week, Grimes called out the NBC anchor, announcing that “Kentucky is ready for a senator that’s an independent thinker…One that won’t be bullied by Mitch McConnell or Chuck Todd.” Earlier, Attorney General Jack Conway, the heavy favorite to capture the Democratic nomination for governor in 2015, made it even more personal, declaring that “this election is not going to be won by some party hack in Washington, D.C., or by words that come out of Chuck Todd’s goatee.”
Conway understands what it’s like to be vilified by the supposedly liberal national media: As Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2010, he endured 24/7 broadcast and digital criticism for his television ad that recounted Rand Paul’s college adventures involving the imaginary deity Aqua Buddha. The Paul campaign brilliantly exploited the state’s political culture of resentment, played the victim card, and claimed that an elitist Conway was impugning his Christian faith. The Democrat’s campaign never recovered.
By contrast, McConnell has embraced his new (and quite ironic) mainstream media ally. It seems that every 20 minutes or so, our television enjoyment in Kentucky is interrupted by a McConnell attack ad that features video clips of Todd, the Establishment pillar, pillorying and patronizing poor Grimes. And each airing sends a subtle, unintended message that is at the heart of the Grimes campaign: She is bravely taking on the polarized and paralyzed institutional Washington, of McConnell is the ultimate symbol.
It seems highly implausible that the Chuck Todd Effect will ultimately decide the McConnell/Grimes sprint to the finish. But before the national pundits and prognosticators write off the Kentucky contest, they should hold their horses. And they should draw an important lesson in parts of the country like Kentucky that are fed up with both politicians and the press: When media criticism is so manifestly disproportionate to the underlying crime, that rhetorical judgment can prove to be a self-unfulfilling prophecy.