Political Paddock: Alison Lundergan Grimes and the fear of falling off a horse

Herald-Leader Political writerMarch 17, 2014 

To House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Alison Lundergan Grimes' position in the U.S. Senate race is reminiscent of a scene in Secretariat, when Big Red is on his way to a record 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes and trainer Lucien Laurin yells to jockey Ronnie Turcotte.

"Remember what he says?" Stumbo said in an interview in his office last week. "Don't fall off, Ronnie. All Alison Lundergan Grimes has to do is not fall off."

He continued: "Don't fall off. Just don't fall off. Stay the course. Don't fall off."

Good advice, no doubt, but it also seems to reflect the lack of a grand strategy from the Grimes campaign other than limited and tightly controlled appearances and a constant barrage of press releases attacking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, as Stumbo puts it, "is stuck."

"Because Mitch McConnell cannot break that ceiling," Stumbo said. "People know who you are. They know what you've done. And if you can't get above 43 percent to 44 percent approval rating, it's not likely — it's highly unlikely — that you can win a race."

Stumbo appears to be at least partly right. McConnell's severely negative numbers haven't moved, are unlikely to do so and must be causing the senator's campaign team endless heartburn.

Which makes it all the more baffling to some Democrats that Grimes has continued to focus on hammering McConnell instead of introducing herself to voters before McConnell does it for her.

Aside from an unyielding assault on McConnell's opposition to raising the minimum wage, a home-run issue for Democrats across the nation, and criticism of McConnell's voting record on women's issues, the campaign appears to lack an overall plan of attack.

Consider last week, when McConnell was caught in an awkward moment, pointed out in a Grimes campaign press release that screamed "McConnell Exposed."

The senator, just days after pushing Republicans in the state Senate to support legislation that would allow U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to appear on the Kentucky ballot twice in 2016, told Kentucky Public Radio at an event focused on Kentucky's heroin epidemic that he "generally" doesn't get involved in statehouse issues.

Was McConnell caught? Sure.

But by blasting it out, the Grimes campaign was reinforcing the notion that McConnell did something extraordinary for Paul after weeks and months of Democratic efforts to drive a wedge between the two ahead of McConnell's primary against Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.

What's the message? Are McConnell and Paul allies or enemies?

It was a clear shot, but what was the target?

McConnell's numbers are dreadful. It doesn't look like they can get much worse. It's the most commonly accepted truth of the race, and the reason McConnell's re-election is drawing so much national attention.

But while Grimes is in an undeniably strong position, her campaign has shown few signs of growth and Grimes, in interviews, is still working to find firm footing for a bruising campaign played out at the highest level.

Media are given advance notice about a few of her campaign events, but most of Grimes' schedule is kept largely hidden. That makes it easier for McConnell and his allies to make hay when she pops up at a fundraiser in New York City with Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand just hours before Gillibrand joins a Senate "talk-a-thon" about the dangers of global warming.

To borrow a phrase, McConnell's the devil Kentucky knows. Grimes is the unknown. And if she doesn't define herself, Team McConnell will be more than happy to do it for her.

It's marginally easier to stay on the horse when the track is fast. But the clouds of McConnell's campaign are rolling in, and the track could soon go from fast to sloppy.

There was a subtle but unmistakable shift in message from McConnell last week when he accepted the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Lexington.

"My opponent will tell you she's a new face," McConnell said. "Well, she's the new face of the status quo. She's a new face for the same leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, who said coal makes you sick."

The McConnell campaign is not taking its eyes off of Bevin or the groups helping him, expecting a substantial onslaught as the primary gets closer. Still, there doesn't appear to be any shift in the threat-level Bevin represents to McConnell.

The battle-tested campaigner is starting a new phase in messaging that is expected to be followed by a paid campaign. It's a fantastically ironic strategy that paints the 35-year-old Grimes as someone who will continue the policies of "the status quo" — the last eight years of Democratic control in the U.S. Senate.

McConnell, by contrast, will look to present himself as the change option, laughable perhaps at first glance, but more understandable when considering the national political climate and Kentucky's continued dislike for President Barack Obama.

"(Obama)'s going to be there three more years," McConnell said last week. "So I'm frequently asked, 'What can we do about this? What can we do about it?' Well, I'll tell you the first step is this November make me the majority leader of the U.S. Senate."

In other words, McConnell is honing in on a strategy that has been the broad theme of his campaign so far: Define Grimes as beholden to Reid and Obama, then give Kentucky another chance to vote against Obama.

McConnell's numbers are bad, but his strategy is clear, and even national Democrats see a lot of reasons to be concerned about their party's fate this November.

To Stumbo, Grimes's strategy makes sense. Knock McConnell down and keep hitting him to make sure he stays down. Make Kentucky dislike McConnell so much that they can't wait to go to the polls and vote against him.

"You'd rather have someone who's mad at your opponent than for you," Stumbo said. "Because let me tell you, if it rains, that guy who's for you may stay home. But if that sonofabitch is mad, he's gonna vote."

Stumbo and the Grimes campaign might be right. It might be enough for Grimes to just not fall off the horse. But without a deeper strategy, Grimes is almost guaranteed a bumpy ride down the stretch.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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