Larry Dale Keeling: Rare meeting in Senate race provided study in contrasts

herald-leader ColumnistAugust 24, 2014 

FRANKFORT — Opportunities to see Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes occupy the same stage, room or television studio at the same time are in limited supply in this U.S. Senate campaign. So, having opted to watch their Fancy Farm Picnic oratory from the comfort of home courtesy of KET's coverage, I decided to get off my semi-retired duff and go see them in person at Wednesday's Kentucky Farm Bureau candidate forum in Louisville.

My alternative was to continue sitting on my semi-retired duff and ponder the significance, if any, of the latest "gotcha" peripheral issues: Grimes leasing a campaign bus on the cheap from a company owned by her father, Jerry Lundergan; McConnell blowing off Senate Agriculture Committee meetings to the max; McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, sitting on the boards of organizations seemingly intent on waging a war on coal.

Surely, I thought, the two candidates would have to speak to more substantive concerns at the forum if only because members of the Farm Bureau board of directors would be asking them substantive questions.

I was not entirely disappointed. The board members asked substantive questions on farm policy, international trade, immigration, health care and other matters of import to the farming community. The candidates gave somewhat substantive answers, however brief, before shifting the discussion back to their main campaign themes.

Those themes being: McConnell is a 30-year insider responsible for the mess in Washington, D.C., and needs to be put "out to pasture"; Grimes is a puppet of President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and every liberal on the face of the Earth.

While they were on the substantive stuff, discernable differences emerged, particularly in regard to immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act.

Grimes supports comprehensive immigration reform; McConnell wants to do it piece by piece. Grimes wants to fix the flaws in the Affordable Care Act; McConnell wants to tear it out "root and branch."

Both performed admirably. McConnell was much better than he was on the Fancy Farm stage and displayed a veteran senator's knowledge of national issues. Grimes obviously had studied those issues well enough to hold her own.

But my takeaway from the forum had nothing to do with anything either one of them said, whether it be substantive or thematic. To understand my takeaway, bear with me while I describe the setting.

The forum was conducted in the Farm Bureau boardroom, with board members sitting around one of those long, rectangular tables that are open in the middle. McConnell and Grimes sat at the head of the table with Farm Bureau President Mark Haney, who moderated the forum.

From the perspective of the board members and others in attendance who sat around the walls of the room or watched on TV monitors in adjacent rooms, McConnell sat on the right of Haney while Grimes sat on the left.

Further to the right, again from the audience's perspective, was a podium where some members of the board posed their questions to the candidates.

By my count, including opening and closing statements and answers to questions, each candidate addressed the board 10 times.

Each time, McConnell remained seated while he spoke. Each time, Grimes got up, walked behind Haney and McConnell and addressed the board from the podium.

The reasons for the different approaches could be simple.

As an attorney not too long removed from practicing law, Grimes may be more comfortable speaking while standing, as she would do in a courtroom. As a 30-year member of the Senate, McConnell may be more comfortable in a seated conversation, as might happen in a committee room or in negotiations in Senate offices.

Still, each of the 10 times Grimes passed behind McConnell's chair provided an image of stark contrast: a 35-year-old woman on the move past a 72-year-old man in a sedentary position.

I'm 67, and sedentary is a personal friend. So, trust me, I would opt to remain seated, as McConnell did. But the contrast between energetic youth and not-so-energetic non-youth captured in those 10 moments is there for the taking if the Grimes camp can figure out a way to exploit it without crossing the ageism line.

Back to those "gotcha" peripheral issues.

Unless the Grimes campaign fudged some finance reports or otherwise broke the law, people understand daddies doing things for their daughters.

And under the rules in play after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Jerry Lundergan could do a hell of a lot more for his daughter than finding her a cut-rate bus lease.

Lawmakers skip committee meetings, whether in Washington or Frankfort. Legislative leaders skip more committee meetings than the rank and file, although most leaders may not skip as many as McConnell reportedly has.

But unless the Grimes camp finds an extremely clever way to revive the bloodhounds McConnell used so effectively 30 years ago in defeating former Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston, who was AWOL far less than McConnell has been, skipping committee meetings isn't a defining issue.

Which leaves Chao's board memberships.

A major focus, if not the major focus, of McConnell's campaign has been portraying Grimes, who has been endorsed by the United Mine Workers, as a foot soldier in a war on coal supposedly being waged by Obama, Reid and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, his wife sits on boards of organizations that seem to have the same intent McConnell ascribes to Obama, Reid and the EPA. It doesn't matter when she joined the boards or when the decisions on coal were made. She's there now, while her husband is trying to ride the "war on coal" issue to re-election.

This apparent hypocrisy could resonate with the small segment of Kentucky voters who haven't already made up their minds about which candidate they will vote for in November.

Reach Larry Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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