Sam Youngman: Forecast in U.S. Senate race calls for downpour of garbage

Herald-Leader Political WriterAugust 12, 2014 

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at the 2011 Fancy Farm picnic.

FILE PHOTO BY PABLO ALCALA | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

OWENSBORO — Keep those umbrellas close. It's about to start pouring garbage in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.

With 12 weeks to go, a race already largely devoid of meaningful and substantive policy discussions is threatening to get intensely personal.

The shift is reflected in the entrance of former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell's wife and the star of his latest ad.

The ad, which features Chao appealing directly to women and calling out Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes for supporting President Barack Obama and his "anti-Kentucky" policies, came days after a Democratic operative said it was okay to criticize Chao's ethnicity and days before Chao's role on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies became a news story.

All of that happened in a week that started with Democratic strategist Kathy Groob saying in postings on Twitter that Chao's Asian heritage is "fair game" to criticize in the election. Groob launched a Super PAC in December that endorsed Grimes and is co-founder of Emerge Kentucky, a group that helps equip Democratic women to run for public office.

Democrats roundly condemned the comments, but the trap was set — it's tough to criticize a candidate's surrogate after they've just been the victim of discriminatory comments.

McConnell unveiled his latest ad days later, and Democrats were undoubtedly twisting in knots trying to figure out how to counter the move in the wake of Groob's comments.

By the end of the week, Yahoo! News was reporting that Chao had joined the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2012, a year after the group had joined forces with the Sierra Club to fight the coal industry.

The charity, which was formed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, pledged in 2011 to spend $50 million over four years on the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign with the goal of eliminating one in three coal-fired power plants by 2020.

The Grimes campaign has not commented on Chao's role with Bloomberg Philanthropies, although it made sure reporters were aware of the Yahoo! News story and a statement about Chao made by the United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Grimes last week.

Cecil Roberts, the union's president who fired up the crowd before former President Bill Clinton and Grimes took the stage in Hazard on Aug. 6, said that "one would think that, as the spouse of a Kentucky politician, she would choose more carefully when it comes to taking a leadership role in an organization that had recently invested in the destruction of the American coal industry and the jobs of American coal miners."

Chao was the only member of President George W. Bush's cabinet to serve all eight years, heading up a Labor Department that was constantly at war with unions, a group Grimes is leaning on heavily.

In that regard, you have to believe there is a ton of material there for the Grimes campaign to mine if she decides to push back in a populist tone.

Or there was. Now, it's less clear.

Opposition research is TNT with which you blow up your opponent, but it can also blow up in your hand. (Think back to 2010 and Jack Conway's "Aqua Buddha" ad against Rand Paul.)

In an interview with the Herald-Leader Monday, McConnell recalled previous campaigns when Democrats have sought to make Chao's origins in Taiwan an issue.

"You know, it happens every election," McConnell said. "In '96, it was Gov. Breathitt saying we need to send an All-American couple to Washington. In 2008, it was commercials accusing me of shipping jobs to China. Last year, it was whatever that group is, Progress Kentucky, and this year, it's one of the founders of Emerge Kentucky. So we've gotten used to it. Kentuckians are not into racial slurs, and I don't think it's going to work."

In fact, McConnell's campaign used its first television ad of this election cycle to rebut what it said were racial slurs made against Chao by the liberal group Progress Kentucky.

"You've seen the ads attacking my husband," Chao said in an ad that aired in March 2013. "As Mitch McConnell's wife, I've learned to expect them. Now, far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch's patriotism because he's married to me. That's how low some people will stoop."

With another poll released Tuesday showing McConnell holding a slim lead, Grimes and her team are in an unenviable position. They can make Chao's position on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies a central issue of the campaign, but not without drawing more attention to Democrats' previous embarrassing blunders when trying to take aim at Chao. Or the Grimes campaign can back off and let Chao have free reign to court the coveted 53 percent of the electorate that are Kentucky women.

With Grimes trailing, the latter is unlikely.

So, to quote Cool Hand Luke: "You get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it."

If Chao becomes, for a regrettable lack of a better phrase, "fair game," then McConnell has made clear he plans to reintroduce voters to Jerry Lundergan, the father of Grimes who has played a major behind-the-scenes role in her campaign.

Lundergan, seen walking on and off stage during Grimes appearance with Clinton in Hazard last week, was convicted in 1987 of using unlawful influence as a legislator to get a state catering contract. The state Court of Appeals later overturned the conviction, saying Lundergan was indicted too long after the alleged crime was committed.

Beginning at the Fancy Farm picnic a year ago, McConnell has from time to time aimed his water pistol at Lundergan. He appears ready to open up the firehose.

"If they want to start bringing family into it, if I were Jerry Lundergan's daughter, I'd have second thoughts about that," McConnell told the Herald-Leader.

Maybe both campaigns will do a U-turn, and the last 80-plus days of electioneering will evolve into a high-minded competition of ideas.

But that's certainly not in the forecast.

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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