OWENSBORO — When Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' bus tour to discuss jobs came through the International Bar-B-Q Festival this weekend, the likely Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate didn't actually talk jobs.
Instead, the candidate worked the crowd, conducted a brief interview and handed out trophies and posed for pictures with the winning "pit crews" that competed in the festival's cook-off.
"I thought that there was a lot of debate in politics until I came and learned from the pits on how meat is actually cooked," Grimes said. "It's not just the wood, it's not just the rubbing sauce, it's not just the meat. It's the people behind it, and it's awesome to be with all of you today."
It's not really an opportunity lost for Grimes. How could it be with all that amazing food?
And if Owensboro and the rest of the commonwealth were paying attention when Grimes ran for secretary of state three years ago, they've already heard Grimes say that jobs are her "number one priority."
In 2011, Grimes declared that the secretary of state is Kentucky's "chief business officer." Once elected, Grimes worked to implement the Kentucky One Stop Business Portal, a project approved by state lawmakers in 2010 to help businesses cut through government red tape. In 2013, she successfully pushed a bill that created a uniform business identification number that can be used across state agencies, helping streamline businesses' interaction with government.
However, the number of employed Kentuckians has stayed roughly the same since Grimes took office in January 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, Fruit of the Loom and Toyota have announced changes that will eventually mean more than 1,800 fewer jobs in Kentucky.
Grimes placed the blame for those job losses at the feet of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who promptly made himself an even larger target by telling the editor of the Beattyville Enterprise that "it's not my job" to create jobs in the region, a remark McConnell aides insist was a misunderstanding.
But the question remains: If Grimes promised to increase jobs in 2011, should she take some of the blame for stagnant job growth in Kentucky?
"We have been working hard in Frankfort, and unfortunately we have not had a partner in Washington, D.C. that's done the same thing," Grimes told the Herald-Leader Saturday. "That's why our unemployment rate is higher than the national average."
When Grimes ran three years ago, she had another jobs plan — "Alison's Action Plan," which included improving the One Stop Business Portal. In September 2011, she said in a campaign video that "creating jobs is my number one priority."
"Over the past few months, I've been able to travel across this commonwealth, visiting our cities and towns, from our fields to our farms, talking with our largest employers, our small-business owners and non-profits and our farmers," Grimes said to the camera. "Together we have developed Alison's Action plan, a detailed plan that allows for us to help bring new businesses to the state, support the existing businesses, small business owners and non-profits, and help put Kentucky and its citizens back to work."
Just days before that video was released, Grimes told The Courier-Journal's editorial board that "there is a huge economic development responsibility on the shoulders of our secretary of state, and it takes someone that has the understanding and knowledge of that role, and the initiative and the plan to move it forward to the next step."
(Although Grimes made economic development the major theme of her 2011 campaign, the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development has primary responsibility for job creation in the state. The secretary of state's main duty regarding businesses is to maintain records about the creation and status of business entities.)
On Saturday, Grimes said her office has "done some great things."
"We have made sure that the laws on the books are efficient so that businesses can actually stay open and operate here in the state," she said.
Less than three years after unveiling her action plan, Grimes is again running on a jobs plan. If there is an obvious contrast between the two plans it's that the 2011 version didn't include any mention of raising the minimum wage.
The Herald-Leader asked Grimes Saturday when raising the wage became a priority issue for her.
"We have led on this issue in terms of raising the minimum wage," Grimes said. "I was the first, not just here in Kentucky, but across the nation, to say that if we're going to grow our middle class we need to actually pay people not just a minimum wage but a living wage."
While Grimes has made the issue a centerpiece of her campaign, there's no evidence that she was the first to do so.
Grimes called for an increase to the minimum wage during the first month of her campaign in July 2013, but President Barack Obama called for an increase in the wage during his State of the Union address in February 2013. Sen. Tom Harkin introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 in early March, attracting 30 Democratic co-sponsors. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a House version of Harkin's legislation a day later, drawing 142 cosponsors.
Altogether, that's at least 175 Democrats, including Obama, who publicly called for an increase in the minimum wage before Grimes.
Still, given that McConnell has been in office nearly 30 years, it's a given that Grimes has an opening to hammer him on the lackluster state of Kentucky's economy. But the effectiveness of her argument may hinge on whether voters remember that, when it comes to jobs, Grimes is an incumbent, too.