Keeling: Gutsy Grimes denied moment of glory

Weak launch not big blow in long senate contest

Herald-leader columnistJuly 14, 2013 

FRANKFORT — Awkward. Underwhelming. Puzzling. Surreal. Bizarre.

These are not descriptions most folks would like to see in close proximity to their names in news stories or Internet posts under any circumstances. And they're definitely not the reactions one would want after launching a major political campaign.

So, I feel a bit sorry for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. She steps forward, after considerable prodding by other prominent Kentucky Democrats who preferred to remain in hiding under the party's bed, to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, knowing that she will spend the next 15 months subjected to the nastiest campaign attacks that she probably will ever endure.

Does she get to enjoy a moment or two of glory as the gutsy heroine who's willing to take on the fastest mudslinger alive? Heck, no. State and national media greet her announcement by immediately throwing figurative pies in her face.

Some of the pies were deserved. Grimes' campaign launch certainly was underwhelming. Others may have been a bit of overkill.

But overkill happens when you announce your candidacy on a hot July day in a vacant former union headquarters lacking air conditioning, when the sign behind the podium you use touts your current job rather than the job you hope to hold come 2015, when you keep dozens of media types waiting 30 minutes past the appointed time while you confer with supporters, and when dozens of those supporters join the media types in a packed room approximately 20 feet by 20 feet just as all those TV lights start glaring.

On the plus side, Grimes can honestly claim her campaign heated up immediately. Sure, it was body heat attributable to the nature of the venue. But heat's heat.

So, after weeks and months of doing what she called "due diligence" on the Senate race while the state and national political worlds waited with bated breath (yes, it's a cliché, one I can't recall ever using, but an appropriate one in this instance), how could Grimes stumble in her grand entrance?

My guess, and it is strictly a guess, is she may not have been 100 percent sure which way she was going to jump until she had the pre-announcement meeting with supporters from across the state. She had to be leaning toward running to bring them all together for the meeting. But she may not have been all in until they gave her the final nudge she needed.

My guess is based on two of the omissions she was criticized for: the sign on the wall behind the podium identifying her as secretary of state rather than a Senate candidate, and the failure to have a website immediately available where people could donate to her campaign.

From what I've seen in the past, I find it very hard to believe either Grimes or her father, former party chairman Jerry Lundergan, would neglect those details if her entry into the race had been set in concrete even a day or two in advance.

Despite the figurative pie on her face, Grimes' underwhelming announcement did not deal her campaign a fatal or even serious blow. She can recover quickly by having an impressive "formal" campaign launch, presumably in the next few weeks.

The presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton, family friends who are very popular with Kentucky voters, would be a grand coup following her stumbling grand entrance.

But even if the Clintons don't make the formal launch, she needs to bring them to Kentucky on her behalf as often as possible during the next 15 months. And she needs to use them better than Attorney General Jack Conway used Bill Clinton in his 2010 race against now-Sen. Rand Paul. "Bubba" and Hillary can do the most good for a Democratic campaign by courting conservative party members on the plowed ground of Western Kentucky and in the hills of Eastern Kentucky instead of preaching to the choir of liberal party members in Lexington or Louisville.

Grimes should have plenty of money to compete with McConnell. Her father's connections, the Clinton organization and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will see to that.

And she should have a lot of help from Democratic members of the state House of Representatives whose control of that chamber may depend on her ability to force McConnell to focus solely on his own re-election. Word is some female House Democrats were very vocal in Grimes' meeting with her supporters. And if House Speaker Greg Stumbo doesn't work his butt off for her, he's an ingrate.

Following Grimes' announcement, The Atlas Project, a progressive source of voter and election data, put out an analysis saying she can win more than 50 percent of the state vote by getting 55 percent of the vote in the Lexington media market (she got 62.5 percent in 2011, when she was running for secretary of state; businessman Bruce Lunsford got 37.4 percent in his 2008 race against McConnell), 52 percent of the vote in the Louisville media market (Lunsford got 50.5) and one percent more of the vote than Lunsford got in all other media markets.

Polls indicate McConnell's popularity in Kentucky is at or near an all-time low. The national Tea Party movement wants him to retire instead of seeking re-election. Some Kentucky Tea Partiers would like to take him out in the Republican primary.

So, Grimes has a shot at beating him in 15 months. A longshot, the history of McConnell's survival instincts tells us, but a shot. But if she wants to turn that shot into reality, she can't afford any more "awkward," "underwhelming," "puzzling," "surreal," "bizarre" moments. Which means she better bring her oratorical "A game" to the Fancy Farm Picnic Aug. 3. State and national media will be watching — again.

By the way, oratorical "A games" aren't necessarily measured in loudness and manic gestures. Cool and calm can be far preferable. Just ask former Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler about his Fancy Farm experience.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader,com.

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