In an interview in his Capitol Annex office last winter, state House Speaker Greg Stumbo considered who might join the race for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.
After warning that Attorney General Jack Conway and others should wait until after the November elections to announce their candidacies, Stumbo mentioned a couple of names before adding, almost as an afterthought, “And what if Alison loses?”
That afterthought became brutal reality Tuesday night when U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a crushing 15-point defeat to Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic opponent and Kentucky’s secretary of state
Throughout the Senate race, rumors persisted that if Grimes lost, she would quickly launch a gubernatorial bid.
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Only a third of Kentucky voters think that’s a good idea, according to the final Bluegrass Poll of 2014, conducted last week before the election.
Poll respondents were asked: “If Alison Lundergan Grimes fails in her bid for the U.S. Senate, should she run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2015?”
Fifty percent of registered voters said no — and that was in a poll that showed McConnell with a five-point lead, well short of the 15-point margin he ended up with Tuesday — and 33 percent said yes. The remainin 17 percent said they weren’t sure.
Among Democrats, half said Grimes should run and 31 percent said no.
The poll of 704 registered voters, conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
At this point, a gubernatorial bid by Grimes “would be a nonstarter,” Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley said Wednesday.
Still, Grimes said in her concession speech Tuesday that she would work hard “to keep this amazing organization that we have built together intact to fight for a brighter and better future.”
Conway, who announced his bid for governor in thespring, said Tuesday night that Grimes “has a very bright future.”
“I just hope she finds happiness and I hope she continues to serve because she is a real talent, and our party needs to keep her,” he said.
What would he see her running for next? “It’s up to her,” Conway said.
No matter who gets nominated, the latest poll indicated that voters are split on which political party they trust more to run the governor’s office. Forty-three percent chose Democrats, 41 percent picked Republicans and 17 percent weren’t sure.
The Democratic Party did best in the Louisville region, where 48 percent chose them and 37 percent picked the GOP. Those numbers flipped in Eastern Kentucky.
While Grimes considers her future, the question of what went wrong in her Senate campaign is still very much on the minds of state Democrats.
Some suggested Grimes failed to show her authentic side, while others suggested she alienated her core supporters by running too far to the right.
Results of the election, combined with interviews with Democratic strategists, indicate a top-to-bottom failure of the Grimes campaign, even as Democrats managed to retain control of the state House.
Cauley credited Grimes and the enthusiasm she generated for saving Democratic control of the state House, but he said when it came to her own race, Grimes was poorly served by an insular campaign staffed with loyalists toher father, former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, who were quick to anger over criticisms.
Jonathan Hurst, Grimes’ titular campaign manager, was not the “de facto campaign manager,” Cauley said. Instead, Lundergan pulled the strings, and his team was “wildly thin-skinned” about criticism from Democrats in Washington or Kentucky, Cauley said.
“They wanted a national campaign with national talent, and they did it with locals running everything,” Cauley said. “I don’t know that there was anybody around that campaign that wasn’t making money off of it who could say to Jerry, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing.’”
Other Democrats wondered Wednesday why the Grimes they know as smart and quick on her feet rarely emerged from behind scripted talking points that sometimes made the candidate look as if she lacked policy knowledge.
“Alison is energetic and has a great sense of humor,” said Democratic consultant Sherman Brown, adding, “I would have liked to see her personality and energy contrasted more with McConnell.”
One common criticism was that Grimes failed because she ran away from core Democratic principles and achievements, specifically refusing to embrace and defend Gov. Steve Beshear’s implementation of the federal health care law.
But Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the suggestion that Grimes should have run a more authentic Democratic race ignored the national political environment and the make-up of the state’s electorate.
“I’ve seen people specifically pointing to (U.S. Rep. John) Yarmuth as the evidence that if she’d been more liberal/progressive she’d have done better,” Voss said. “Yet she was within 10 points of him (Yarmuth) in Jefferson County despite having a much, much higher-quality opponent.”
Ultimately, results from around the country showed that Democrats were going to have a bad night Tuesday regardless of their efforts.
“Nationwide, Democrats decided to sit on the sidelines during these midterms,” Brown said. “That’s apparent from blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts electing Republican governors.”
Voss noted that Grimes’ performance was mirrored in races across the country as Democrats were punished for their party connection to President Barack Obama, a theme McConnell and his allies were pushing even before Grimes officially entered the race.
“Grimes liked to say that she was on the ballot and not Barack Obama, but only someone naïve about national politics would have fallen for that line,” Voss said. “When control of a congressional chamber is in question, especially with a Congress as polarized by party as this one, the president’s policies are always on the ballot.”
As Grimes and her supporters hunt for silver linings and quite possibly a path to the governor’s mansion, the Bluegrass Poll indicates the race remains wide open.
More than half of respondents — 54 percent — said they had a neutral opinion or no opinion of Conway. He was viewed favorably by 27 percent of voters and unfavorably by 19 percent.
In comparison, the same poll showed Grimes with much higher name recognition, although much of it was negative. Thirty-seven percent saw her favorably and 43 percent held an unfavorable opinion of her.
Only about one in five voters had formed an opinion about the two announced Republican gubernatorial hopefuls.
Eighty percent of voters had a neutral opinion or no opinion of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. Of those who had an opinion, 13 percent were favorable and 7 percent unfavorable.
Voters held a more negative view of former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, with 13 percent viewing him unfavorably and 8 percent favorably. Seventy-nine percent had a neutral opinion or no opinion of Heiner.