After months of prelude, primary election signals start of real battle for Grimes

syoungman@herald-leader.comMay 14, 2014 

Alison Lundergan Grimes announced she was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in early July last year. Later that month, she launched her campaign in front of more than 1,000 people gathered on the Carrick House lawn in downtown Lexington

Last Friday, Grimes kicked her campaign into high gear, starting a 50-county bus tour to complement her first television ad.

Grimes is all but assured of winning her party's nomination May 20, when she faces three men from Louisville who have run limited campaigns. Democrats and political observers, however, are divided over the question of whether Grimes has used the past 10 months to adequately define herself and prepare for a fall campaign against U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"I think Grimes made a mistake by being so passive during the Republican primary," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "The Senate election will come down to who gets to define Grimes, because she's the unknown quantity who has served in an office that does not create much of a political profile."

Since entering the race, the likely Democratic nominee has maintained a laser-like focus on fundraising, hustling to offset McConnell's enormous campaign coffers.

When not raising money, Grimes has held a handful of campaign events — usually large, stage-managed productions — where the 35-year-old candidate promotes her economic plans and puts an exclamation point on almost daily press releases attacking McConnell.

With the campaign preparing to enter the general election phase, Grimes is in an undeniably strong position to defeat the five-term McConnell. Every public poll shows the candidates running neck and neck, but those same polls suggest that Grimes remains, in many ways, a blank slate.

For example, nearly half of respondents in a February Bluegrass Poll said they had no opinion or a neutral opinion about Grimes. Earlier this week, an NBC News/Marist Poll found that 37 percent of registered voters in Kentucky had never heard of Grimes or were unsure how to rate her.

"McConnell needs to portray her as a vote for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, while she needs to define herself as an independent voice that fits with the preferences of the typical Kentucky voter," Voss said. "She could have used the early election period to establish that independent version of herself, so that by the time McConnell joined the discussion about what sort of senator Grimes would be, voter impressions would have solidified. Instead, Kentuckians will get to hear the competing narratives at the same time, and she'll have a harder sell."

Successful fundraiser

Others, such as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Gov. Steve Beshear, argue that Grimes has used the first several months of her campaign to do precisely what she needed to do — raise money.

"If they ask me, I'd say they're doing exactly the right thing," Yarmuth told the Herald-Leader last week. "Why get involved (in the Republican primary)? I'd stay out of that. Let them beat each other up."

Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said the campaign has spent the last 10 months building "the best grassroots organization Kentucky has ever seen."

"Our grassroots supporters in all 120 Kentucky counties are keeping our campaign tied or ahead of the minority leader in 15 recent polls and have helped us cut Mitch McConnell's Washington lobbyist-funded cash advantage in half," Norton said in a statement.

There is little debate that Grimes has proven herself a successful fundraiser.

Grimes has raised almost $8 million since getting in the race, besting McConnell in two quarterly reports. With just less than $5 million in cash on hand, Grimes badly trails McConnell's $10 million war chest, but she has proven her fundraising chops.

The question that will dog Grimes until November is this: Can McConnell turn voters against Grimes by linking her to the company she keeps on the fundraising circuit?

Grimes has attended fundraisers with Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who once called coal a "fuel from hell," and Michelle Obama, first lady to a president who continues to be extremely unpopular in the commonwealth.

The best example of Grimes' vulnerability is likely the issue of coal.

Grimes has tried to position herself as the pro-coal candidate, even going so far as to blame McConnell for EPA actions and subsequent job losses in Kentucky. But McConnell and his allies have throughout the year, in ads and in media campaigns, sought to remind Kentucky voters that many of the national Democrats Grimes has taken money from support environmental regulations opposed by the coal industry.

The Grimes campaign has begun to push back on that premise in recent days, pointing out that McConnell and a fundraising group supporting him, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, have also taken money from anti-coal donors or donors who previously funded Obama.

"McConnell's trend of hypocrisy underscores the desperate lengths the Washington insider will go to save the only job he cares about — his own," the Grimes campaign said in a news release Wednesday.

Still, there's no indication that the coal industry's support of McConnell is wavering, or that McConnell and his allies will stop using coal and Grimes' fundraising events as fodder for attacks.

Pocketbook issues

Coal is among a handful of issues Grimes has highlighted in the first months of her campaign. While remaining vague on many controversial issues, such as health care, Grimes has staked out more detailed positions on issues pushed by national Democrats that poll well in Kentucky, such as increasing the minimum wage and improving pay equity.

As Yarmuth has said in the past, many Democrats believe it is "smart politics" for Grimes to keep her head down on health care — a tricky issue for Democrats in a state where Beshear has been praised for implementing the federal Affordable Care Act but polling continues to show public opposition to "Obamacare."

Pocketbook issues are what will be on voters' minds in November, Yarmuth said.

"I think she rightfully understands that those are the voters' priorities, and she's focused on those," the congressman said.

But to Greg Leichty, a University of Louisville professor who also is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for U.S. Senate, Grimes is going after low-hanging fruit while taking an overly cautious approach to other issues.

"Those are things that every Democrat stands for," Leichty said. "She's trying to make it a referendum on Mitch McConnell, and I understand that. But I think they've played a little bit too much prevent-defense."

(The two other Democrats on Tuesday's ballot against Grimes are Thomas K. Recktenwald, a retired civil servant and school technology coordinator; and Burrel Charles Farnsley, the son of former Louisville mayor and U.S. Rep. Charles Rowland Farnsley.)

Allies of McConnell, however, said it's too early to tell whether Grimes made a mistake by not using the primary election period to firmly introduce herself to voters using her own words.

"My sense is that time will tell about whether she made good use of the first many months," said Billy Piper, a former top aide and longtime ally of McConnell's. "It's hard to say. She's been largely invisible but obviously working hard to raise money and that's an important ingredient in any campaign."

But Piper hinted at something that has a number of Democrats worried — that by avoiding all but handpicked issues, Grimes has not adequately prepared herself for the harsh spotlight of the general election in one of the most closely watched races in the country.

"To have your first engagement as a candidate be against a candidate like Mitch McConnell is a daunting task for anybody," Piper said.

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

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