When Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes took the stage at the 2018 Fancy Farm picnic, she was greeted with a chant from Republicans settled in at the far corner of the stage.
“Federal Pen! Federal Pen! Federal Pen!” they chanted, an allusion to rumors that her father, Jerry Lundergan, was in legal trouble.
Grimes quickly shut them up with a fiery speech that stoked speculation about whether she’d be the front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor in 2019.
All that buzz unraveled last week, starting with allegations that Grimes had abused her power as the state’s chief elections officer and ending with her father’s indictment for almost $200,000 in alleged illegal contributions to her 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.
Grimes was publicly considering a run for attorney general or governor. Now a third option is in play: taking a break from public office.
“Scandal hurts more in a primary than the general election,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “In that sort of circumstance, if she’s facing several other high profile Democrats, they’ll look safer to the donors and the voters.”
Attorney General Andy Beshear has already announced his gubernatorial campaign, and other candidates are expected to follow after the November elections.
“Usually, when a politician faces allegations, whether it sticks or not depends on people’s perception of her,” Voss said.
The indictment says Grimes’ campaign did not know about the actions of her father or his friend, political consultant Dale Emmons, and Voss said voters often forgive politicians for the sins of family members.
But Grimes also is hampered by her own scandal. She has twice been accused of improperly accessing voter registration data, though Grimes insists she has not overstepped her authority.
“I am wondering if what is being exposed out of the Board of Election/Secretary of State’s stuff is going to wind up being more significant in her downfall, ultimately,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political analyst, in an email.
Grimes, for her part, hasn’t conceded anything.
Last Monday, Grimes said the complaints about overstepping her authority with the State Board of Elections, which were made by a Republican last year and a Democrat this year, were about her attempts to improve the cyber-security of Kentucky’s election system.
On Friday, she said the prosecution of her father, which started under a Democratic-appointed U.S. Attorney who has since been replaced by a Republican-appointed prosecutor, is based on a politically-motivated complaint.
“These allegations started as a result of a politically motivated complaint filed against my campaign nearly five years ago,” Grimes said. “That complaint was already investigated and completely dismissed by the bipartisan Federal Election Commission.”
The Republican Party of Kentucky filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Grimes in 2014, claiming her father was providing services to her campaign for less than market value. The indictment did not mention the claims filed by the Republicans and dealt with a separate issue.
Voss, the political scientist, said Grimes now runs the risk of having her reputation tainted, no matter how the complaints against her are resolved and how the justice system deals with her father.
“Eventually, the voters conclude where there’s smoke there’s fire and they tune out the actual battle in court,” Voss said.
Republicans have already reached that conclusion. Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky called for Grimes to recuse herself from running the 2018 elections minutes after news of the indictment spread.
To Jennings, Grimes is no longer a viable political candidate in Kentucky.
“She’s off the field for at least 2019 and 2020 and simply cannot be a successful candidate in either cycle,” Jennings said. “Beyond that, it is still going to be tough. Beyond all of the legal problems that have come to light this week, she’s no longer just a liberal Democrat living in an increasingly Republican state. She’s a badly compromised Democrat living in an increasingly Republican state.”
Democrats have remained mostly silent on the matter. Attorney General Andy Beshear declined to comment Friday and the Kentucky Democratic Party maintained a safe distance from Grimes.
“The Kentucky Democratic Party is not in a position to and will not comment on an ongoing investigation,” said Marisa McNee, a spokeswoman for the party. “We are proud of the work Secretary Grimes has done and know she will continue to be a champion of all Kentuckians’ right to vote as Secretary of State.”
Herald-Leader Reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.