Bill Clinton's presence in Virginia race previews role in Kentucky Senate fight

syoungman@herald-leader.comNovember 4, 2013 

Bill Clinton rarely says the word Kentucky and leaves it at that. Instead, the former president says, "Kentucky: I carried it twice."

Clinton figures to be heavily involved in next year's U.S. Senate race in the Bluegrass, and as Virginia voters prepare to go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new governor, the former president's seeming omnipresence in another commonwealth offers a preview of what Kentuckians can expect.

Clinton, who won Kentucky on his way to the White House in 1992 and 1996, has been a consistent presence alongside longtime ally and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who is on his way to becoming Virginia's governor Tuesday, polls show.

Given the value that the Bill and Hillary Clinton place on loyalty and helping their friends, it's not a stretch to imagine the former president getting to know Kentucky all over next year on behalf of likely Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Her family has known the Clintons for many years.

"They have already pledged their support," said Jonathan Hurst, senior adviser to the Grimes campaign. "They will remain very supportive and helpful. The Clintons are very popular in the state."

The ex-president already has made a splash for Grimes, appearing in a video to tout her candidacy when she kicked off her campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said Monday that although Clinton has not set his appearance schedule for next year, he "clearly supports Alison Grimes' candidacy."

"We will start looking at 2014 requests closer to the new year," McKenna said.

Hurst said the Grimes campaign had directed its team to study the McAuliffe campaign, particularly its grass-roots organization, targeted messaging system and voter-turnout operation.

Jerry Lundergan, a longtime Clinton friend and the candidate's father, was spotted last month at a rally in Richmond, Va., where the former president brought his star power to help McAuliffe. Philip Rucker, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, was at the event and posted on Twitter that Lundergan said he and McAuliffe were the "best of friends."

Democrats who know the Clintons said the couple bring unique skills and popularity to any race in which they support a candidate.

"When the Clintons go out to support a qualified candidate, it usually is a big multiwave boost, especially if it is both of them," said Sam Arora, an elected representative in the Maryland House of Delegates and a former aide to McAuliffe and Hillary Clinton. "They are two of the most popular people in the country, and their imprimatur brings attention, raises money and excites the Democratic base."

Having retired only recently as U.S. secretary of state and having gotten involved in organizational endeavors ahead of an anticipated presidential run in 2016, Hillary Clinton has kept a lower profile in the Virginia race, but she is widely expected to help Grimes a great deal next year.

"This is the first time in 20 years that the Clintons have campaigned while neither of them held national office, so everyone is watching to see what kind of punch they pack," Arora said. "Especially in a red state like Kentucky."

Bill Clinton has shown a great fondness for the Bluegrass over the years, and he has the unique ability to campaign here when other Democrats, namely President Barack Obama, might be more liability than asset, Democrats said.

In 1992, with third-party candidate Ross Perot splitting the vote, Clinton won Kentucky with nearly 45 percent. Four years later, with Perot again on the ballot, Clinton narrowly edged out Bob Dole with about 46 percent of the vote.

By contrast, Obama has found no love in the Bluegrass. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., trounced Obama in 2008, the last time McConnell was on the ballot, drawing almost 58 percent of the vote. Last year, Republican Mitt Romney increased that margin, winning the state with almost 61 percent of the vote.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton overwhelmed Obama, garnering more than 65 percent of the vote in Kentucky as the two faced off in the 2008 presidential primary. Last year, Kentucky Democrats sent a message to Obama, with 42 percent of their votes going to "uncommitted" rather than the sitting Democrat, who faced no real primary challenge.

Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic operative in Virginia and the Democratic National Committee's top spokesman, said Clinton enjoys immense popularity in part because of the economic success of his presidency, and he "has a special relationship with Kentucky."

"I would send President Clinton anywhere," Elleithee said. "There's a reason why he's one of the most requested surrogates by Democratic candidates. He is someone that just about any Democratic candidate is going to want by their side no matter where they are."

Elleithee said that in the cases of McAuliffe and Grimes, Clinton has a longtime personal interest that makes him more effective than usual.

"He can speak in personal terms about the candidate there because he does know them so well personally," Elleithee said. "He's not just coming in and reading talking points."

Republicans, however, aren't impressed.

Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for McConnell's campaign, said Monday that the state had changed politically since Clinton's salad days, and his involvement would only tie Grimes to the unpopularity of Obama.

"The more national Democrats who speak on Alison's behalf, the more Kentuckians will be reminded that a vote for her is a vote to sustain the liberal, anti-coal and anti-Kentucky policies of President Obama," Moore said. "Kentuckians have already had a pair of opportunities to weigh in decisively on endorsements from Bill Clinton after he came to Kentucky in 2008 for Bruce Lunsford and again when he gave the keynote address in support of Barack Obama."

GOP skepticism aside, talk of the Clintons returning to the commonwealth has some Democrats thinking about digging their campaign boots out of the closet.

Moretta Bosley, owner of Owensboro's famous Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, was a super delegate for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential run, but Bosley now has largely retired from political activism so she can focus on being a grandmother.

Still, she said, if the former president — a big fan of Bosley's restaurant before having open-heart surgery — and his wife pick up the phone, she's ready to answer the call.

"When and if they do, I am still a huge Hillary and Bill fan," Bosley said.

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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