More than 1,000 people gathered on the large lawn of Carrick House in downtown Lexington on Tuesday to help Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes kick off her bid to be Kentucky's next U.S. senator.
The event, which lasted more than an hour, featured a Who's Who of Kentucky Democrats, including Gov. Steve Beshear and three former Democratic governors — Paul Patton, Martha Layne Collins and Julian Carroll — and a large video screen that showed messages from former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville.
It also was a family affair that included Grimes' husband, Andrew; her parents, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan and Charlotte Lundergan; her four sisters; and her grandmother, Elsie Case, who has been instrumental in Grimes' campaign ads, particularly a recent online video in which she asks, "What rhymes with Mitch?"
That's a reference to Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville, who has held the office since January 1985. When Grimes announced her candidacy on July 1, McConnell quickly released a mocking video called "What Rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?" It offered answers such as "not ready for prime time" and "sticks to party line."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Grimes, who was elected Kentucky's secretary of state in 2011, went hard after McConnell in her speech at the kickoff. "There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, and after almost 30 years, Sen. McConnell is at the center of it," she said.
The McConnell campaign seemed underwhelmed by the spectacle and bravado of Grimes' kickoff.
"Kentuckians have a clear choice between Mitch McConnell, an unwavering defender of our people, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, an ambitious but unproven liberal who will be more beholden to President Barack Obama and his financial backers than the citizens she hopes to represent," McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said in an email.
Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson called the kickoff "a campaign mulligan." He was referring to Grimes' news conference on July 1, which was held in an office building that lacked air conditioning and was marred by little organization.
The Grimes campaign kickoff Tuesday showed a candidate who is itching to take on McConnell.
After a few speeches and video messages from family members and supporters, Grimes emerged from a large bus that had her picture on its sides to the loud strains of Neil Diamond's Kentucky Woman.
She was accompanied by her husband and Beshear, who has battled politically with her father for decades. Beshear took to the stage and loudly asked, "Are we ready to rumble?"
He said McConnell has been ineffective for 30 years and becomes more interested in himself than he is in Kentucky with each passing year.
"It's time for a change," shouted Beshear, who lost a bid for U.S. Senate against McConnell in 1996.
Greeted by a standing ovation, Grimes stated her name and added that "with your help I will be the next U.S. senator from Kentucky."
She called McConnell "the proud guardian of gridlock" in Washington.
"Where Kentucky once had giants like Wendell Ford in the Senate who built our state and this country up, we have a senator who tears down the values we believe in," she said.
Ford, a Democrat, was unable to attend the event because of family health reasons.
Grimes told a story about Mary Jackson, a woman from LaRue County, whom Grimes said was ignored by McConnell when she tried to visit him in his office.
She said McConnell "showed her the door" but first had his staff take a photo of them together to send back to the media in her hometown.
Grimes accused McConnell of voting for his own pay raises while failing to represent coal miners, women and veterans.
She quickly said she does not always agree with Obama, who is highly unpopular in the state, on issues including coal and some provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. But Grimes also said she would work with the president and members of Congress and not be an obstructionist.
It's a certainty that the Grimes campaign will get more help from former President Clinton, who is a friend of her father.
In his video message, Clinton said Kentucky's 2014 U.S. Senate race is "very important" and that Grimes can win it. He also predicted that the campaign will be long and difficult.
A letter read from former U.S. Sen. Ford contained Ford's answer to "What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?"
"It's changing times," he said.
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and former House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, were emcees for the event. State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, congratulated Grimes for her work this year on a bill to make it easier for members of the military to vote from overseas.
Pineville singer Chris Rose, whose brother recently sang Coal Keeps the Lights On for the TV show America's Got Talent, sang for the crowd.
Grimes is scheduled to continue her kickoff this week with a "Road to Fancy Farm Tour" that begins Wednesday in Bowling Green and takes her to six Western Kentucky communities before appearing Saturday afternoon at the annual Fancy Farm picnic. McConnell also will be there.
Three other Democrats with little statewide following have said they will seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate next May: Louisville music promoter Bennie J. Smith, University of Louisville communications professor Greg Lichty and Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry.
McConnell has drawn opposition in the GOP primary from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.