Sen. Elizabeth Warren's visit to Kentucky welcomed by Grimes and McConnell

syoungman@herald-leader.com,By Sam YoungmanJune 27, 2014 

When the Associated Press posted details on Twitter Thursday morning about the events Alison Lundergan Grimes is having this weekend with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Josh Holmes couldn't resist replying.

"Happy to pick her up at the airport," responded Holmes, a senior adviser to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Warren's visit to Kentucky this weekend to rally voters and raise money for Grimes, the Democrat trying to deny McConnell a sixth term, presents the rare case where both candidates are welcoming the same surrogate to the state. But obviously for very different reasons.

To Grimes and Democrats, Warren and her recently rebuffed effort to ease the burden of student loans embody the populist streak within the hearts of Kentucky voters that Grimes must connect with to defeat McConnell in November.

"When Mitch McConnell blatantly blocked a measure to allow students to refinance their college loan debt, he proved that he has zero desire to put Kentucky students and families ahead of partisan politics," said Charly Norton, spokeswoman for Grimes' campaign. "Alison Lundergan Grimes will be a champion for college affordability who will fight to ease the student loan debt burden for hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians."

To McConnell and Republicans, Warren's presence in the Bluegrass State is another chance to highlight Grimes' ties to liberal national Democrats who are out of step with Kentucky voters on issues such as coal and guns.

"If you look at the policies Alison Lundergan Grimes is promoting and the national liberals she's associating with, she's not even hiding her allegiances anymore," said Allison Moore, spokeswoman for McConnell's campaign. "Alison Lundergan Grimes is outright telling Kentuckians that if she's elected her only problem with Barack Obama would be that occasionally he's not liberal enough for her taste."

Warren, a former Harvard professor, was a hero to liberals long before she was elected to the Senate because of her push for consumer protections and other efforts to protect the middle class. She seemed excited to get to Kentucky after McConnell led Senate Republicans earlier this month in blocking her proposal to allow student loan refinancing.

"One way I'm going to start fighting back is I'm going to go down to Kentucky and I'm going to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes," Warren told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "She's tough, she's feisty, she endorsed the student loan bill, said she wanted to bring down interest rates for Kentuckians. ... So my view is I'm going to get out there and try to make this happen for her."

A dynamic speaker, Warren is sure to be a hit with Grimes' Democratic base. But Republicans are betting that Warren's record as a vocal proponent of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposals to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired powered plants and a long list of gun control measures won't sit well with Kentucky voters.

While Grimes struggles to distance herself from Obama and national Democrats on coal-related issues, her allies believe that on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, fair pay and college affordability, Grimes can tap into blue-collar Democrats who have voted Republican in recent federal races.

Warren, said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, is among the best in the nation at communicating with that audience on those issues.

"Her rise to prominence was because she could relate middle class issues to middle class people very well," said Yarmuth, D-Louisville. "Most elections this year are going to be on that theme: 'Who's side are you on?' And nobody does that better than Elizabeth."

The only portion of Warren's visit to Kentucky this weekend that is open to the press is a Sunday morning rally hosted by the Louisville College Democrats, where the two will "talk about college affordability, economic security and strengthening the middle class," according to the Grimes campaign.

The campaign said Kentucky students carry an average of $20,000 in student loan debt and Warren's proposals would help "nearly 360,000 Kentuckians reduce their student loan burden."

On Wednesday, the Grimes camp released a list of statements from Kentucky college students criticizing McConnell for not allowing a vote on Warren's proposal, and a new poll came out indicating that Grimes' message as it relates to populist issues is warmly received in the state.

The poll, conducted by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling on behalf of the Americans for Tax Fairness Action Fund, found that 80 percent of voters said they would choose a candidate "who wants to close loopholes to make sure millionaires do not pay a lower tax rate than the middle class," and that 76 percent said they would be more likely to vote for "a candidate who wants to make sure that the rich pay their fair share of taxes."

"The results show that Kentucky voters respond well to the populist language being used by Democratic candidates in recent election cycles," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "If Grimes can keep the Senate election revolving around economic issues, then it's a favorable battlefield to her."

McConnell's allies, however, are using Warren's visit to continue pushing McConnell's core campaign strategy of tying Grimes to Obama, who remains unpopular in the state.

The Republican Party of Kentucky, which had previously released a drawing of a school bus being driven by Obama with Grimes and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as passengers, updated its drawing to add Warren.

American Crossroads, the national Super PAC that backed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and shares some of the same board members as Super PACs backing McConnell, released a video on Thursday that referred to Warren as "the queen of class warfare," "President Obama's biggest fan" and a "war on coal enthusiast."

But Yarmuth said McConnell's "guilt by association" strategy has already been "baked into the numbers" and has failed to sway as many voters as McConnell had hoped.

"I think Mitch has ridden that horse as far as it will go," the congressman said.

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

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