Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Democrats divided over whether Grimes should run for governor

Flanked by her husband Andrew, Governor Steve Beshear and State auditor Adam Edelen, Alison Lundergan Grimes  gave her concession speech at  her election day event on Tuesday November 4, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Flanked by her husband Andrew, Governor Steve Beshear and State auditor Adam Edelen, Alison Lundergan Grimes gave her concession speech at her election day event on Tuesday November 4, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

You may recall the first time Forrest Gump touched a football.

Playing for the University of Alabama, Gump was handed the kick-off, ran it back with some directional confusion, straight through the back of the end zone and through the tunnel, running over the Crimson Tide's fictional marching band on his way out of the stadium.

In the next scene, after Gump reaches the end zone in another mad dash, the crowd held up signs that collectively spelled out the word "Stop."

There are a number of Kentucky Democrats contemplating a similar strategy should Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes pursue a run for the governor's mansion next year.

Attorney General Jack Conway, the only Democratic candidate for governor who has begun raising money, did a masterful job during the past year of consolidating Democratic support and locking up endorsements from key party figures and union allies.

If Grimes wades into that race, it seems all but certain that her entry would mark the start of the next chapter in the Kentucky Democratic Party's rough-and-tumble history, dividing a party that is already in the midst of a soul-searching journey and reopening divisions that Democrats hoped had been healed by their collective disdain for Mitch McConnell, who is about to become U.S. Senate Majority Leader.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the lone Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation, has endorsed Grimes for the U.S. Senate and Conway for governor. So what happens if Grimes, whose rallies often featured full-throated endorsements from Conway, decides to keep running?

"I think it would have a negative impact on the party," Yarmuth said. "I think it would hurt the party."

The conventional wisdom among Democratic officials is that if had Grimes lost by a respectable margin — five points or less — then the defeat would have been justifiably blamed on President Barack Obama's anemic approval ratings and McConnell's financial advantage.

But Grimes got a 15-point drubbing, and it's unclear what, if any, facets of her campaign were successful enough to transfer over to a governor's race.

In the days and weeks since the election, Grimes has kept a low profile, writing op-eds and issuing press releases but avoiding public events, such as an opportunity to speak to the Kentucky Association of Counties.

She has given no indication about what her future political plans might be, and people close to her and her family don't seem to have any clear idea of what she might do.

Meanwhile, Democrats loyal to Grimes have consoled themselves by noting her youth, her name identification and her immense fundraising success.

While the first two are undeniable assets, the idea that Grimes could translate her 2014 fundraising success into a formidable gubernatorial campaign seems questionable.

Much of Grimes' fundraising success was fueled by one fact: She was running against the most hated Republican in the country.

Fundraisers in Hollywood and Martha's Vineyard are the norm when you're taking on a top national target. It's hard to imagine that those same high-dollar donors have any interest in helping Grimes take on another Democrat for governor of Kentucky, especially when their last investment yielded so little.

"She's going to have to go back to the well with a lot of donors, some of which are probably pretty frustrated with this year," Yarmuth said. "I think it would be a problem."

Still, despite the hand-wringing going on in Democratic circles, there is an appetite for a candidate other than Conway. His detractors raise concerns about his 2010 loss to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, his ability to connect with voters in one-on-one situations and the political implications of his refusal to appeal a decision overturning Kentucky's ban on gay marriage.

To many Democrats, Grimes entry wouldn't be anything unusual given the party's history of fighting bloody nomination battles in a state where, for decades, the winner of the primary was likely to win the general election.

"It's not like we're not equipped to handle a hard-fought democratic primary," said David O'Neill, Fayette County's PVA. "We can come out of a primary beaten up a little bit, but that's politics."

State auditor Adam Edelen concurred, saying this week that "I am not one of these guys who believes that it's a negative thing to have a competitive primary."

"The Democratic Party has always had primaries," Edelen said. "It flexes that muscle."

Others, however, think it would be asking too much of Grimes to get in another race after her marathon campaign against McConnell.

"It would be a lot to ask to say sign on for another year," said Jennifer Moore, former chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. "The party should be grateful she stepped up when she did and she gave it her all. But to ask for more? I don't know about that."

Beyond the grueling physical toll of the last campaign, Grimes also has to take into consideration what losing twice in seven months would do to her future prospects.

There are few, if any, Democrats in the state who think she could bounce back from losing both races.

"I think at best she would have a 50/50 chance to beat Jack," Yarmuth said. "And I think that's a big risk for her to take."

As she looks to her next step, Grimes might look to Gov. Steve Beshear as an example that can provide both encouragement and caution.

When Beshear ran successfully for governor, he didn't get in the race until December. But when he did, it was 12 years after he had lost to McConnell.

And Gump only kept running after he had scored a touchdown.