Politics & Government

What does the Lundergan verdict mean for Alison Lundergan Grimes’ political future?

5 reasons Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is being investigated

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.
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Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.

When Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ name came up during her father’s trial this past month, she was described by attorneys and witnesses as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Emails from her 2011 campaign for Secretary of State showed her inner circle staring brightly into the future, planning to put her in the governor’s mansion or U.S. Senate cloakroom.

A federal jury Thursday may have turned that star into a black hole.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan was found guilty of illegally funneling money into his daughter’s 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate by using his company to pay expenses for the campaign and not seeking reimbursement.

There was no evidence that Grimes was aware of the contributions, but given how tightly her father was entwined in her political rise, the verdict is a major blemish on Grimes’ political biography.

“It damages her considerably,” said Ronnie Ellis, a political columnist for CNHI newspapers in Kentucky. “I’m unwilling to say it’ll end her career, but it certainly tarnishes her future.”

Republicans Thursday were quick to dance on Grimes’ perceived political grave. Team Mitch, the official campaign account of Mitch McConnell, tweeted “Finally, an answer to the age-old question...” with a video from 2014 that asks what rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes. The Republican Party of Kentucky sent a statement with a plea to elect the Republican Secretary of State candidate, Michael Adams, in November.

Grimes, as a new Secretary of State, was seen as the future of the Democratic Party in Kentucky and a potential successor to her father’s political power after she “led the ticket” in 2011 (winning the most votes of any of the Democratic candidates).

Then, in a decision made nearly on the spot on a hot July day in 2013, Grimes ran straight into the buzz-saw of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. What had looked like a promising campaign in the summer of 2013, when Lundergan was paying Democratic operative Dale Emmons without seeking any reimbursement from the campaign, turned into a 14 percentage point loss by November 2014.

She clung onto office a year later as one of just two Democrats who won statewide office in 2015. Biding her time, she set out to make it easier to vote in Kentucky while bulking up the state’s election security. She weighed in on the issues of the day, from President Donald Trump to whether Kentucky should legalize medicinal marijuana.

It seemed likely that Grimes would mount a gubernatorial bid against the unpopular Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019, perhaps fulfilling that vision of her one-day taking the governor’s mansion.

Then came the indictment of her father. Then a scandal that had been bubbling for more than two years came to the surface, resulting in three separate state agencies launching investigations into her actions as Secretary of State, where she exercised extraordinary influence over the State Board of Elections — allowing her to push through a contract for a political donor, delay action on a federal consent decree to clean the voter rolls and gain unprecedented access to the state’s voter registration system.

Those investigations continue to hang over Grimes’ head, as well as new allegations of alleged wrongdoing by her father during her campaigns for secretary of state that surfaced in the federal trial. Prosecutors alleged Lundergan made illegal corporate campaign donations to both her 2011 and 2015 state campaigns. Among the evidence was $20,000 in cash and a $25,000 check with the subject line “Boy Scouts” that the federal government’s key witness, political operative Jonathan Hurst, said was intended to pay for mailers for her campaign.

Attorney General Andy Beshear said Thursday he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate alleged wrongdoing in Grimes’ 2011 and 2015 campaigns.

Many politicians eventually face the reality that any amount of good done in public office can be easily outweighed by even the perception of impropriety. Thursday’s verdict made that perception more concrete for Grimes.

This isn’t to say she will never run for office again in Kentucky — or even that she’ll never win. The investigations into her tenure as Secretary of State are complicated and voters could easily write off Lundergan’s campaign mishaps as a father going above and beyond for his daughter.

There are examples of people who have faded out of the political scene and then mounted comebacks, one of the most recent being former Governor Steve Beshear, said Matt Erwin, a Democratic consultant. But he added that not many people mount a comeback after a forced retirement.

“Anything is possible,” Erwin said. “The better question is, do you want to? After everything you’ve been through?”