Grimes Counts on Clinton Magic for a Kentucky Win
Policy + Politics

Grimes Counts on Clinton Magic for a Kentucky Win

REUTERS/John Sommers II

Alison Lundergan Grimes, the would-be Democratic successor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has a clever way of dismissing her rival’s efforts to link her to an unpopular President Obama.

“The senator seems to think the president is on the ballot,” she said during a recent no-holds-barred exchange with McConnell at a political event in Fancy Farm, KY. “He’s not. This race is between me and you and the people of Kentucky.”

Related: Bill Clinton: Dems’ Best Hope to Keep the Senate

The outspoken Kentucky secretary of state and scion of a well-known political family might have mentioned another key player in this contest – former Democratic President Bill Clinton. While Grimes, 35, can’t do enough in this coal-producing state to distance herself from Obama and his reviled anti-pollution policies, she also can’t do enough to embrace Clinton, a mentor and longtime family friend.

As the Democrats’ unofficial campaigner in chief, Bill Clinton helped Grimes raise more than $600,000 at a fundraiser in Louisville last February. He was back again a week ago at two high-profile campaign events in Kentucky’s horse country and eastern coalfields.

Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 7,000 coal-mining jobs since mid-2011 as the state has struggled to recover from the recession. Grimes and Clinton both slammed McConnell for being an “out-of-touch Washington insider” who failed to create or save coal industry jobs, according to The Courier-Journal.

Amid cheers and hoisted placards declaring “Ditch Mitch,” Grimes vowed at an appearance in the city of Hazard to serve as a “Clinton Democrat” who would support higher wages, increased mine safety and robust health care coverage for Kentuckians. Grimes’s unyielding opposition to the Obama administration’s restrictive emission standards for coal-fired power plants has earned an endorsement from the United Mine Workers of America.

Related: Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election

Grimes and Clinton blamed McConnell and the GOP for political gridlock in Washington that has thwarted efforts to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment insurance and address income inequality. Clinton sought to contrast the youthful Grimes with McConnell, 72, a senator for three decades who, said Clinton, “believes a senator has no business trying to create jobs.”

“Nobody can tell me it’s not a senator’s job, especially one with 30 years of experience,” Clinton said. Grimes chimed in, “I believe Kentucky is ready for a United States senator whose vocabulary goes beyond the word ‘no.’”   

Grimes poses a grave political threat to McConnell just as he seems on the verge of becoming Majority Leader if Republicans regain control of the Senate in November – as many predict. While McConnell, a lawyer and one-time county chief executive, has long dominated the Bluegrass State’s political landscape, Grimes, also a lawyer, won her first statewide office as secretary of state in 2011.

Still, her family name carries significant political weight, “for better or worse,” as CNN  has noted.

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Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former state legislator and chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party who for years was a prominent political figure in Kentucky and nationally. But he was forced from office in 1987 amid a scandal over a $150,000 no-bid contract that went to his catering company, according to USA Today.  

Grimes has grown in confidence since first entering the contest and gives as well as she gets from McConnell in what is proving to be a rough-and-tumble mid-term contest. McConnell’s camp, for example, takes delight in invoking Lundergan’s checkered political background, while Grimes’s supporters note that mine safety problems festered when McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, served under President George W. Bush as labor secretary.

Although McConnell has moved ahead of Grimes for the first time in two recent polls, the race is still a toss-up and could be one of the costliest Senate races in history. Some even predict it could go as high as $100 million. 

A new survey by Public Policy Polling shows McConnell with a 44 percent to 40 percent lead over Grimes, with 7 percent for Libertarian David Patterson. McConnell’s somewhat stronger showing this time suggests that he’s consolidated GOP support after fending off a primary challenge from Matt Bevin, a Tea Party supporter.

Related: McConnell Brushes Off Attacks from the Right

McConnell is also being helped by Obama’s pathetic 32 percent approval rating in the Bluegrass State – about eight points lower than the president’s approval rating nationwide. Analysts say the president’s poll numbers are a drag on Grimes and could be decisive in November.

McConnell rarely misses a chance to try to link Grimes to the president – or to belittle her relative lack of government experience after just two years as secretary of state.

“I’ll give my opponent credit,” McConnell said at the Fancy Farm political picnic. “She knows Barack Obama can’t be counted on to do anything about the crisis on the border, so listen to this. This week she came up with her own plan to keep folks from streaming into our country. Missile defense.”

The typically dour McConnell isn’t that much more popular than Obama, with just 37 percent of likely voters approving of his performance and 54 percent disapproving. But he has been making up ground, while Grimes struggles with voter approval of just 41 percent.

McConnell also leads in the most recent Bluegrass Poll, 47 percent to 45 percent, which also reflects an increase in his approval rating among Kentucky voters, up from 29 percent in May to 36 percent now.  

Related: McConnell, the Senate’s ‘Dr. No,’ Emerges as Key Deal Maker   

“I think if Obama continues to slide – and he can’t slide much more, probably – it’s really bad news for Grimes, because presidential popularity is so influential in these elections,” said Al Cross, a veteran political reporter and University of Kentucky journalism professor. “But if somehow they can make the case that Obama may be a disappointment but . . . Mitch McConnell is one of the guys who has made Washington dysfunctional, they have a chance.”

Cross added, “That is what keeps Grimes in the race – the fact that McConnell has this horrible job rating and is seen as a creature of Washington.”

That’s where Bill Clinton comes in. He carried Kentucky twice as a presidential candidate and helped Hillary Clinton get more than 65 percent of the vote in the state during her 2012 primary bid against Obama. Clinton reportedly sees Grimes as a protégé. As a 14-year-old, she handed him a bouquet of roses during his inaugural festivities. The former president and Hillary Clinton have both volunteered to help Grimes campaign against McConnell.

“The Clintons are not as popular here as they used to be, but they are still pretty popular,” said Cross. “Kentuckians generally don’t vote Democratic for president unless a southerner is on the ballot. They concluded Al Gore wasn’t a southerner, and they’re correct. But Clinton still seems like the guy down the street. He’s one of us.”

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