It’s been a critical week in the U.S. Senate race, with a long-anticipated faceoff of the candidates, an advertising war about women, and a bid by the last federal candidate who won Kentucky, Bill Clinton, to return the state’s eastern coalfield to the Democratic column.
Alison Lundergan Grimes needed a win at Fancy Farm, and she got it. She had been on defense about President Obama’s anti-coal policies, struggled with reporters’ questions and slipped behind Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in the Bluegrass Poll for the first time.
Grimes’ overly forceful speaking style works best at Fancy Farm, where speakers must deal with hostile spectators, and she used it to her best advantage, delivering a relentless broadside against McConnell, most memorably saying he was like HBO’s “Mad Men” drama: “Treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season.”
McConnell did a workmanlike job with a middling speech than ran 2 ½ minutes shorter than hers. His performance fueled the idea that at 72, he has lost a step, but he may have had another reason for going short: He had snappers that he wants to be repeated again and again, and he didn’t want to give news outlets and online posters too many to choose from. The best: “We can’t afford a leader who thinks the West Bank is a Hollywood fundraiser.”
That referred to Grimes’ latest flub, in which she said Israel’s missile defense kept Palestinian fighters out of tunnels. She clarified that, and seemed to do better at dealing with reporters — and staying out of their clutches.
Grimes’ speaking style isn’t suitable for an audience of persuadable voters, but this is not a persuasion election. It’s a motivation election, in which each side’s main job is to energize and turn out its already decided voters. National polls again show Republicans more motivated to vote on Nov. 4. That might not be the case in Kentucky, for two big reasons: the 40 percent of Republican primary voters who voted for someone other than McConnell; and the energy that Grimes’ campaign draws from women, who tend to stay away from non-presidential federal elections in droves.
Grimes increased her emphasis on women last week, running a TV ad in which a woman asks McConnell why he voted twice against the Violence Against Women Act and “enforcing equal pay for women.”
McConnell would say that the act’s latest version went too far, including same-sex couples and immigrants, and allowing tribal courts to try non-Native Americans; and that one of the equal-pay votes would have caused more lawsuits. In the other case, a bill let women file pay-discrimination suits up to 180 days after their last check; McConnell voted for an amendment to make it 180 days from “the date when the person aggrieved has, or should be expected to have, enough information to support a reasonable suspicion of such discrimination.”
Not that any such nuances appeared in McConnell’s response ad, which featured his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and a narrator saying, “Mitch voted for even stronger protections than Obama’s agenda will allow.” Chao closes the ad with a broadside of her own: “Alison, supporting the Obama agenda isn’t pro-woman; it’s anti-Kentucky.” That makes little sense, but the ad, like McConnell’s whole campaign, tries to be more about Obama than anything else. The ad mentions him three times in 30 seconds, though he has very little to do with the topic.
Chao made her appearance after being the object of a racist tweet by Democratic consultant Kathy Groob of Northern Kentucky. Republicans tried to make maximum hay from the blunder, which may have been one reason for the ad; stories about it mentioned the tweet.
The Groob-Chao contretemps and another recent story could start this dispiriting race on a slippery slope that could make it even more personal. The conservative National Review ran a piece, probably spawned by Republicans, noting the sexist name and menu items of a Lexington restaurant owned in part by Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan.
The next hits could be on Lundergan’s 25-year-old conviction, overturned on appeal, for doing business with the state while a legislator, and Grimes-side attacks on Chao’s record on coal-mine safety and health as labor secretary for George W. Bush. Both sides have seemed reluctant to bring the father and the wife into the fray, but the race is close, so watch out. As U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said on tour with McConnell in Middlesboro last week, “We’re shooting real bullets in this election.”
Mine safety and health are legitimate issues, and they became more important last weekend, as the United Mine Workers of America, which pointedly did not endorse Obama in 2012, backed Grimes. That nicely set the table for her Wednesday foray with Clinton to Hazard — an effort to regain traction in the eastern coalfield, where it has been an article of faith for years, albeit false, that Obama is mainly responsible for the loss of 8,000 coal-mining jobs in the region.
It’s hard to refute an article of faith. Clinton tried, arguing a broader message of jobs and economic inequality and citing McConnell’s major misstep of the race, telling the Beattyville Enterprise in April that it wasn’t his job to create jobs. (McConnell says he misunderstood the question.)
McConnell, judging from his responses to Grimes on paid TV, does seem to fear the two main thrusts of her campaign: jobs, which beats every other concern by a mile in polls, and women’s issues, which she has been emphasizing lately. He’s been in response mode, not his usual attack mode. But in response to Clinton’s visit, he went on the attack in Corbin at the start of his tour with Rogers, claiming, “These people are against everything we stand for.” It wasn’t clear if he was referring to Grimes, but that was probably his intent.
One issue both sides seem reluctant to use, but one that could help Grimes in the east, is the 42 percent decrease in the number of Kentuckians without health insurance, thanks to the federal health-reform law. It has clearly helped more of us (521,000 at latest count) than it has hurt or inconvenienced, and that is especially true in the eastern coalfield, which has most of the counties where the uninsured rates are clearly under the state average of 11.9 percent (down from 20.4).
Gov. Steve Beshear, who embraced the law, predicted months ago that by Election Day it would be a political plus, but Grimes still seems scared to come close to anything associated with Obama, much less Obamacare. Beshear was smart to avoid use of that word as he expanded Medicaid and started the kynect health-insurance exchange, given Obama’s unpopularity. The word is probably still toxic, but McConnell should be pressed about his ridiculous assertion in late May that the future of the state exchange was “unconnected” to his call for repeal of the law that funded it.
If Democrats can find a credible way to argue, without raising the specter of Obamacare, that McConnell is for taking health coverage away from half a million people, that dog could hunt in the hills. The claim might not be true, but until McConnell explains himself, it’s fair game.
Al Cross, former C-J political reporter, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.