Larry Keeling: Round 1 to Matt Bevin, Alison Lundergan Grimes

Larry Dale Keeling
Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — This and that between the exchange of (not so) pleasantries at the Fancy Farm Picnic and the exchange of (even more not so) pleasantries when House Republicans and Senate Democrats feel the pain of legislative redistricting:

It takes a bit of doing to impress a cynical old curmudgeon who's been kicking around the Kentucky political scene for nearly 40 years. But I admit to being impressed twice in the last fortnight.

First, the official launch of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' 2014 U.S. Senate campaign was a masterpiece of planning and performance that should assure her fellow Kentucky Democrats she most definitely is ready for prime time and whatever incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell throws at her.

Then, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin rocked at Fancy Farm, delivering by far the best speech and doing it extemporaneously, proving he, too, is ready for whatever McConnell throws at him in the Republican primary.

What impressed me most about Grimes' rollout had nothing to do with the glitz and glitter, the video addresses by former President Bill Clinton and 3rd District U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the on-stage speeches, the emerging stardom of Grimes' grandmother Elsie Case, the catchy "Team Switch" play on McConnell's "Team Mitch" or even the more than 1,000 supporters who attended. Rather, it was the Democratic "frenemies" who put their rivalries on hold long enough to join in support of Grimes.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo and the man he ousted from that post, Rep. Jody Richards, sharing emcee duties wasn't all that shocking. As members of the same legislative caucus, they've had practice making nice to each other. More surprising was seeing former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo on the same stage with Gov. Steve Beshear, whom Mongiardo trashed in leaked recorded conversations after Beshear dropped him from his re-election ticket.

And, of course, there was Beshear escorting Grimes to the stage and introducing her despite his well-documented 40-year feud with her father, former state representative and Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan. Grimes hugged Beshear after he introduced her. And in the classiest, savviest move of all the day's signals of Democratic unity, when she and her family joined raised hands on the front of the stage at the end of the program, she reached back and pulled a seemingly surprised Beshear into line with them.

If Grimes' "Team Switch" can keep all these frenemies united against their common enemy throughout the campaign, she has a very legitimate shot at taking down "Team Mitch."

First, though, "Team Mitch" has to get past Bevin and his Tea Party followers. Round One at Fancy Farm definitely went to Bevin.

From my vantage point in front of the TV, McConnell's speech came across as no better than a middling effort, not his worst but certainly not his best. Someone must have turned off his "attack dog" switch, because his comment about "all these liberals who have come down here to push me around" sounded more like a puppy seeking sympathy. More "poor, poor, pitiful Mitch."

By comparison, Bevin was a political orator from the old school, immediately going on the attack by effectively using the Senate minority leader's (habitual) early departure from this year's stage to evoke memories of the "hound dog" ads McConnell used in his first Senate race against former Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston. "It's like a 30-year flashback," Bevin said. "Instead of where's Dee, where's Mitch?" And he ended by vowing not to run to the right or left of McConnell "but straight over the top of Mitch McConnell and into the U.S. Senate."

Bevin's bravura performance was enough to make me recant my previous comment that his chances of beating McConnell in the Republican primary "start out at infinitesimal and may well go down from there." The odds are still long, but they are not infinitesimal.

For her part, Grimes continued to impress by ignoring the heckling, delivering a good speech, making no mistakes, and getting in a zinger about McConnell refusing to pass even a kidney stone.

Assuming Bevin doesn't beat McConnell (and Democrats should pray he doesn't because McConnell's unpopularity makes him an easier target), he could be an attractive 2015 GOP candidate for governor. He easily outperformed the other potential gubernatorial wannabes on the Fancy Farm stage.

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer (who all but declared his gubernatorial candidacy in his speech) both appeared to get flustered during their time at the podium. Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen delivered a good speech, but well short of Bevin's stemwinder.

Edelen also came across as a better Democratic team player by focusing most of his remarks on the Grimes-McConnell race while Conway spend a bit much of his time talking about his own accomplishments, a discussion that can wait for later.

I would have been shocked if Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson had announced he would run for governor in 2015. He's too liberal to win a statewide election on his own in Kentucky. (Not too liberal for me, but too liberal for Kentucky voters.) And he's smart enough to know it.

Note to House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover: The redistricting plan you released Thursday is far fairer than the plan House Democrats passed in the spring or anything they will pass in the special session beginning Aug.19. But arguing for fairness when you're in the minority won't keep you from getting your butt kicked.

So, House Republicans and Senate Democrats need to prepare for bending over, grabbing their ankles and feeling the shoe leather applied to their posteriors. It ain't fair, but it's reality.