Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Alison Lundergan Grimes hard to find as national issues play out on local stage

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, second from right — at a campaign roundtable for women in September — has had little to say about McConnell and the shutdown.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, second from right — at a campaign roundtable for women in September — has had little to say about McConnell and the shutdown. Herald-Leader

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is hard to miss these days.

Since helping to broker a deal to end the government shutdown and extend the debt ceiling, McConnell has been on a media tear that has seen him appear just about everywhere except American Idol and Big Blue Madness.

McConnell's omnipresence on television and in newspapers has made Alison Lundergan Grimes' relative quiet during the past few weeks seem conspicuous.

There's an obvious political logic to the two strategies, but Grimes could pay a price by conceding this window to McConnell.

The senior Kentucky senator is working reporters and making appearances because he has to. His decision to take a high-profile role in the negotiations had to be spun.

The senator had to convince Kentucky voters that he had taken a statesman's role, not sold out conservatives as Republican challenger Matt Bevin has said, and not caused the shutdown as Grimes' campaign has said.

Whether McConnell's media blitz is working can't be known, and with more than a year before Election Day, success or failure might be irrelevant. But McConnell does seem to be mitigating the damage that could have come with being a Republican leader in Washington at a time when polls show Americans are furious with Washington and Republicans.

And it seems that by choosing to keep a low profile, Grimes has missed an opportunity to put McConnell on his heels.

A poll released last week by left-leaning Public Policy Polling revealed that Grimes' strategy of hitting McConnell over the mess in Washington through a series of daily news releases did almost nothing to exacerbate McConnell's woes and improve her position.

The poll showed Grimes leading the five-term senator by two points, which was well within the poll's margin of error. For a newcomer on the national stage, tied or leading is a remarkable starting point, but a similar survey conducted by the same group in early August had Grimes up by 1 point.

Collectively, the numbers suggest that a news-release campaign featuring quotes from Grimes' press secretary isn't going to sway voters.

Grimes' campaign disputed the notion that the Democrat had largely been in hiding since the shutdown began, pointing to a number of small roundtables and low-profile campaign events she has held around the state and a quote she gave to The Associated Press and cn|2's Pure Politics on Oct. 8.

Comparatively though, Grimes has been a ghost at a time when she stood to gain from hammering McConnell with the same energy and redundancy McConnell has employed to defend himself.

It's understandable that Grimes, at 34, is still finding her legs as a candidate on the national stage against arguably the most powerful elected Republican in the land.

If that's the case, then she is wise to lay low, study and take a step back from the media spotlight lest she risk a gaffe or misstatement that could haunt her for the next year.

But that wisdom has limits, as there is a fine line between cautious and timid. Voters might begin to wonder what Grimes stands for or why they are hearing only from McConnell.

Democrats such as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth were supportive of Grimes staying quiet in the first week that President Barack Obama's health care law was rolled out in Kentucky. No need to tie herself to Obama or risk infuriating Democrats when the program's success or failure remained unsure, they said.

But the past three weeks have seen major national issues playing out on a local stage, and Grimes has been all but missing in action.

Reader Ty Campbell emailed on Oct. 16, saying he and his family were eager to support Grimes, but they couldn't until they hear where she stands on the issues.

"We need her on the record during this tumultuous period in our country's history," Campbell wrote. "My family has deep conservative Democrat roots in Kentucky, and we will give the gal our vote if she outlines her positions, and more importantly, seeks our support and asks us for our vote."

Grimes has more than a year to let Campbell and his family and the rest of Kentucky's voters know where she stands on the issues.

But if she hopes to be the mid-season replacement for The Mitch McConnell Show, she can't wait too long to define who she is, what she stands for and why she belongs in Washington.

Otherwise, Kentuckians could well decide they're fine with six more years of reruns.