Keeling: Poor, poor pitiful Mitch

Herald-leader columnistJuly 28, 2013 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — This and that as the good folks of St. Jerome Parish prepare for Saturday's 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic, where the food is always yummy and the political playacting is always hammy:

In April, when U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was hamming it up in the role of victim after a tape of his "Whac-A-Mole" political strategy session was released by Mother Jones, I joked about expecting to hear him break into a chorus of Linda Ronstadt's version of Warren Zevon's Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me at any moment.

These days, though, I can sort of understand if he seriously feels like a poor, poor, pitiful Mitch.

Republican Sen. John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leave the minority floor leader out in the cold and looking very un-leader-like while they work out a deal to avoid a "nuclear option" change in filibuster rules. A good-sized segment of Kentucky Tea Partiers hope Louisville businessman Matt Bevin takes McConnell out in the 2014 Republican primary. The conservative Club for Growth PAC issues a statement hinting it could wind up supporting Bevin in the primary.

And after an "underwhelming" start, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee, recovers nicely, reportedly wowing top national Democratic donors at a retreat on Martha's Vineyard and posting a well-crafted Internet video Thursday in which she calls McConnell out on pocketbook and women's issues and essentially tells him to bring it on.

A few weeks ago, the McConnell camp posted a derogatory video asking, "What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?," a play on an ad in Grimes' 2011 secretary of state race which ended with her grandmother, Elsie Case, asking the same question: "What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?" In perhaps the nicest and most humorous touch of the spot Grimes posted Thursday, Case ends it by throwing the question back at McConnell: "What rhymes with Mitch? It's time for a switch."

Despite Tea Partiers' hopes and the Club for Growth's hints, Bevin's chances of winning the Republican Senate primary start out at infinitesimal and may well go down from there. But his candidacy alone is enough to cause McConnell, who isn't going to take anything for granted, to spend time and money he would rather conserve for the race against Grimes. And if the video Grimes posted Thursday is any indication of the savvy her campaign team will bring to this race, she could prove the toughest, most formidable opponent McConnell has ever faced.

McCain's gambit ultimately may damage McConnell the most because it suggests he is losing his grip on his own caucus, which would make his "front bench, back bench" argument for re-electing him because of his seniority a joke.

Actually, this argument became a joke when earmarks became a Washington no-no. Without his ability to bring home the bacon, McConnell has nothing to offer Kentucky. A freshman member of the Senate majority who works with that majority and Democratic President Barack Obama can do far more for the state, including its waning coal industry, than a minority leader whose main claim to fame in recent years has been as Washington's obstructionist-in-chief.

At the moment, then, life is not a bowl of cherries for McConnell. Cherry pits, maybe, but not cherries.

So, yes, I can sort of understand if he feels like a poor, poor, pitiful Mitch. But after more than 30 years of watching him embrace a scorched-earth philosophy in the pursuit and use of personal political power, this understanding falls well short of sympathy.

Protagonists in Shakespearean tragedies get what they deserve in Act 5. If McConnell's recent woes are a sign Act 5 of his political career has begun, or is even approaching, he, too, will be getting exactly what he deserves.

McConnell's and Grimes' performances will be the central theme of state and national coverage of the Fancy Farm Picnic. Their first head-to-head meeting assures that a sizeable contingent of national media will be there.

(I trust picnic officials will take care of the in-state media regulars and keep them from being pushed aside by the national media tourists. That's not a personal issue, since I'll be watching from home. Just want my colleagues among Kentucky media grunts to be given their due.)

However, since we know who will be facing off in the 2014 Senate race, the more enlightening part of this year's picnic will be looking to see which potential 2015 gubernatorial candidates will be working the crowd and pressing the flesh.

Some (Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen, along with Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer) will be there because statewide constitutional officers are invited to be part of the political speaking annually.

Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson recently said he would announce his 2015 plans before or shortly after Fancy Farm. His decision to skip the picnic for the second year in a row suggests to me he will not run in 2015, or ever. A Democrat who really wants to be governor doesn't blow off Fancy Farm once, much less twice.

Crit Luallen, Edelen's predecessor as state auditor whose name always comes up in conversations about future gubernatorial candidates, recently underwent total knee replacement surgery and thus has a legit excuse for missing the party of the year in Western Kentucky. If she interrupts her rehabilitation and goes picnicking, it will be bigger news than if she doesn't show.

Other names in the 2015 mix include House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo among D's, and Tea Party favorite Phil Moffett on the R side. Seeing them in the crowd would not be surprising.

But the discerning Fancy Farm observer looks for the unexpected appearance, the non-politician, perhaps the businessman or businesswoman hoping to become the next John Y. Brown Jr. or Wallace Wilkinson.

Go. Eat. Enjoy the fun. And see if you can spot the unexpected.

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

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