Sam Youngman: As Grimes angers liberals, Yarmuth strives to keep them on board

To the casual observer, it might have appeared that U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth was a burning train wreck of political miscalculation Wednesday night when he took the stage in Louisville.

Yarmuth, speaking ahead of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did something that Democrats in Kentucky have gone out of their way to avoid doing:

He embraced, defended and praised President Barack Obama.

"Nobody has inherited a tougher job than Barack Obama did," Yarmuth said Wednesday night to wild applause from more than 4,000 Democrats.

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As the Grimes campaign has taken on water in recent days for her refusal to say whether she voted for Obama and for her decision to run an immigration ad condemned by liberal groups, Yarmuth is working overtime to keep Grimes' liberal base intact.

"I think that is part of my role with her," Yarmuth said Thursday in a phone interview with the Herald-Leader.

The liberal base of Kentucky's Democratic Party is not wholly different than it is nationally — 30 percent of Kentuckians give Obama a thumbs-up — and Grimes needs every last one of them to show up on Nov. 4 if she hopes to deny U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a sixth term.

But it's a restless base.

Liberal Democrats in Kentucky generally smiled, if through gritted teeth, when their nominee ran as a pro-gun, pro-coal candidate in order to stand a chance with the state's conservative Democrats. They have bent, but not broken, as disdain for McConnell trumped dissatisfaction with Grimes.

McConnell has his own problems with the Republican base after a bruising primary that he won easily, but the state's anti-Obama environment is likely to go a long way toward healing whatever wounds remain. (It's notable that Tea Party favorite U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, is joining McConnell on the first leg of a bus tour next week.)

On the other hand, Democrats need their base to fully turn out in the midterms, an area where the party has traditionally lagged far behind Republicans.

Despite grumbling, Yarmuth said, he thinks those voters will ultimately show up and vote for Grimes, even if they have to vote against some of their most cherished policy beliefs.

Using climate change as an example, Yarmuth said, he talks to Democrats who are concerned about climate change and unhappy to see Grimes running so hard as a coal candidate. To them, he explains the "big picture."

"What's worse for the environment? Alison Lundergan Grimes in the Senate as a junior senator or Mitch McConnell as the leader of a Republican Senate Majority?" Yarmuth said. "And people say, 'I get it.'"

Grimes' refusal to say whether she voted for Obama for president also has been met with disappointment but reluctant understanding from many liberal voters, some of whom dismiss it as a media obsession that has no real impact on an electorate that has seen millions upon millions of dollars worth of ads tying Grimes to Obama.

But the Democrat's campaign might well have gone one step too far in its efforts to out-McConnell McConnell with its latest immigration ad, in which a narrator uses the term "illegal aliens" and Grimes looks at the camera and says she approves the message "because I've never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants and I never will."

"She got some bad advice," said Freddy Peralta, a Lexington businessman and pro-immigration reform advocate. "This ad is very unfortunate, to say the least."

In a conversation with the Herald-Leader, Peralta added his voice to a chorus of groups on the left, including MoveOn.org, who have condemned the ad and have called for the Grimes campaign to pull it off the airwaves "immediately."

As the Herald-Leader reported Thursday, Grimes did not acknowledge or answer questions about the ad after an event Wednesday morning in Lexington, and her top advisers again declined Thursday to say whether they will yank the ad.

Peralta, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he has heard from many Grimes backers about an ad they deem "offensive," and he said he's disappointed because it doesn't reflect what Grimes says on the campaign trail about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Dana Beasley Brown, chairwoman of the environmentalist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, called the immigration ad "more than disappointing" and said "absolutely ... there's a risk" that disappointed liberal Democrats might stay home Nov. 4.

The group decided in September to back Grimes despite its opposition to her positions on coal, but it discussed over the weekend whether to continue its support in light of the immigration ad, Brown said.

"We have talked and talked and talked about this," she said. "It made it very, very difficult. But in the end, the truth that Kentucky desperately needs a new senator, you can't ignore that."

Yarmuth conceded that he thinks the Grimes campaign ran the ad because it was worried that a pro-McConnell group's attack ad accusing Grimes of favoring "amnesty" was costing her with demographics she needs to win.

"They thought that hurt them very much with male voters," Yarmuth said. "What I've said to them and others is I don't think this campaign is going to turn on immigration."

Yarmuth is a rare beast within Kentucky politics, though: a proud liberal champion of Obama's health care law who has been able to cut an independent path through the state Democratic Party's sometimes-warring factions.

Yarmuth speaks his mind, in part because he can. He's not running statewide, but instead in a district that is the heart of Kentucky's liberal base.

And even though Republicans are overjoyed when he talks about Obama — McConnell's campaign circulated a clip of Yarmuth telling MSNBC's Jose Diaz-Balart on Thursday that he voted for Obama twice — Yarmuth is happy to be the man who tries to hold Grimes' base together.

And to many on the left, he said, there is a willingness to overlook some compromise stances by Grimes because many people think she's just coming into her own on issues that are dear to them. There is a sense of "OK, she's young, she's a Democrat, over time she will be fine," he said.

"She hasn't been engaged in these national issues for very long, and I think she has a lot of room to grow on all of them," Yarmuth said. "I think people probably get that to some extent."

He added: "I can't imagine a MoveOn member who's going to walk into a voting booth and vote for Mitch McConnell."

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